Friday, April 13, 2007

Character research

A lot of writers don't seem to do a lot of preparation before they start writing their novels. I envy those people, because I'm unable to start something without knowing vaguely where I'm going and having a rough plan in place.

Before I started writing my novel, I worked out the premise and plot of each story and the motivations of each character. Each story is roughly 9000 words long so I had to 'research' the main characters before I began, as I don't have a lot of time and space to figure them out as I go along.

First, I worked out how the characters fit into the plot and the point I wanted to make through them. Why are the characters acting like they do? If they are in conflict with each other or with the situation, why don't they just walk away? What has brought them to this point in their lives? I answered these questions by creating back stories for each character. With ten stories there were a lot of main characters and a lot of work to do, but it's paid off in the long run.

When writing each back story I thought about what would make a person behave and feel like my character. I considered their upbringing, what their parents were like, and any disappointments, expectations and setbacks they may have experienced in the past. For example my character Jessica feels conflicted between her sexuality and her mother's wish for her to marry and have children, and the guilt she feels is the main reason she is unable to break away from her mother. Her mother wants Jessica to marry well because Jessica's father died when she was young, leaving her mother broke, lonely and bitter. Jessica was brought up to think marriage to a wealthy man is the ultimate security. She also feels responsible for her mother's happiness, who emotionally manipulates Jessica to keep her in check. Both mean that she feels guilty about her sexuality and finds it hard to come to terms with it.

Other things I worked out was my character's personality and appearance, which also drive the plot and help to explain why the character is struggling to break away. When a friend of Jessica realises she is having cold feet and asks her about it, Jessica is roused from her usually passive demeanour and snaps at her friend, unwittingly exposing her feelings of guilt and shame. Her reaction and behaviour isn't random or out of turn.

Once I've finished shaping a character I moved onto the other characters in the story, explaining why they are preventing Jessica from coming out or why they are putting pressure on her to break off the wedding. These people add to Jessica's conflict and move the plot along in a realistic way.

Knowing my characters inside out means that I'm less likely to have stereotyped or two dimensional characters in my writing. I also am more likely to avoid plot holes and unrealistic behaviour or events. These preparations are not set in stone; I have changed the plot and my characters as I've gone along, which I'm happy with because I'm not writing by numbers. The initial research just serves as a starting point.


Cathy said...

I still don't really know how much plotting to do and how much to let the characters and story 'develop' organically. I know my main characters quite well....I have already written part of my plot as a short story so am just expanding it to a novel. I know where the story starts and ends and the turning points in the middle but I am not plotting it out scene by scene, chapter by chapter. It is really interesting to read how other writers approach their novel writing, in fact I was just reading something on plotting today!

hellojed said...

Hi Cathy,

I know what you mean, I tend not to do a huge amount of research and I hardly plot the stories at all. I like to start with some idea of an ending and characters though - it gives me a feeling of security, like a safety net to go back to if I hit a wall. If I plan it scene by scene it changes anyway so it's no use!

Good luck with your novel!

alfaking said...

Seems you've mastered your characterisation well. You could be a teacher, jokes apart.
There's no difference in all you say about characters and all I've read from other writers. Means you're doing fairly well... What inspires me is the way you've described it. Not the kind of "you should do this, you should do that, etc". Very humble exposé. Understand what I mean.
Keep it up, my friend.

Beccy said...

What a lot of thought and preparation before you start to write.

Have you ever gone to a writers group? If so how did you find it?

hellojed said...

Hi Beccy, I did go to a creative writing course once to try to motivate myself, it was grand but people just weren't doing the exercises which was a shame. I'd like to join a writer's group when I've finished my first draft I think.

Beccy said...

That sounds good. I did think about going on a writers course but I don't think I'd be any good and I don't think I'd handle criticism too well of which there would be a lot!