Thursday, June 17, 2010

What are your characters hiding?

I'm still drowning in emails (I'm getting to them, I promise) but I figured if I did another email related post it might send you all rushing for the unfollow button--and I wouldn't blame you! So I thought I'd try a proper topic instead: writing. (Hey, I think that *might* even be what this blog is supposed to be about!)

For those of you who are new followers around here--*waves at the smiling faces in my sidebar*--you should know, I'm a very character driven writer. Basically I let them run the show, and I'm just along for the ride. And the only way I can do that is if I know my characters really well.

I have a lot of character development exercises I do to really dig deep into their personalities, but one of the most helpful--for me at least--is to ask myself what they're hiding from me. And I don't mean the, "I once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" kind of secrets. (Those are important too, of course. But lets face it, most of our characters only have one or two BIG secrets.) I mean the little secrets. The things that make them real.

The wife who lies to her husband about her lipwaxing appointments because she doesn't want him to know she has a mustache that could rival Tom Selleck (okay, that was the ONLY celebrity with a mustache that I could think of).

The teenage girl who never goes to the beach with her friends because she's self conscious of the way her outie belly button looks, and she doesn't want to be the only girl not in a bikini.

The decent looking guy who never smiles with his teeth showing so people won't see how crooked his teeth are.

The tiny flaws everyone has and tries to hide, to pretend we're all just a little more perfect than we really are.

They may seem insignificant, but they can make a big difference. For instance--thanks to my poor sleeping habits--I usually have wicked dark circles under my eyes, which means I don't dare leave the house without concealer. It may seem like a pointless detail, but put me in a situation where I'm around people and I don't have my concealer and you bet it's gonna change my behavior.

And it's the same thing with your characters. Knowing all the tiny things they hide adds depth to the character--even if the detail never comes out. If you were writing about the teenage girl mentioned above, you might never tell the reader she's self conscious about her belly button. But it will still shape your story. You won't have any scenes at the beach. She'll never be tempted to get a belly button ring, or to bare her midriff--even when there's a cute boy she wants to impress. Your readers won't need to know why. But you know.

So how about you guys? Do you know what your characters are hiding? Have you made them spill all their secrets?

33 comments:

  1. Great post - I'm sorry the emails are still so crazy!
    I like what you said about little secrets. Those can be so important, even if (like you said) they never actually show up. Our little secrets do shape us. As for my characters... well, we have a good relationship. I know pretty much everything about them, and if I don't, they'll tell me. They really want to be represented properly.
    Although, sometimes I do have to pull the author-card and make them spill about certain subjects.
    :)

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  2. Interesting exercise. I took a break from writing last night to work on character sheets again, so this is timely.

    Thank you! And Good luck with the email!

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  3. Good luck with all the emails!

    Characters secrets are always so much fun! I've made mine tell me all of hers, at least I thought, but now I'm beginning to think she set a road block for me to jump over and we aren't getting along. I'm hoping this passes soon.

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  4. Great post. I happen to like Tom Selleck, with or without a mustache.

    Little secrets are the things that make our characters 3-dimensional instead of flat cardboard cut-outs on the page.

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  5. I had never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I've always just considered it adding depth and dimensions to my characters, but when it comes right down to it, its their secrets that achieve what I'm after. Cool beans!! :)

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  6. Great advice. This is going into tomorrow's Cool Links Friday. You rock girl!

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  7. Great post! I'm a character writer, too. Boy they can get away from us sometimes, but I always love discovering those little secrets.

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  8. You make a great point. I find that the further the character is from the center of the tale the less I need to know about them, but I do have even some little details in my head about very minor characters.

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  9. Hah...Tom Selleck....thanks for the visual. Very creepy.

    You're talking about those characteristics that make them human, jump off the page. Love that. I have a character profile I make them--yes them--fill out before I start writing. It usually evolves but it works for me. I've had a kid who doesn't like meat because he's wigged out by the spots on cows. Bad dream when he was younger, yadi-ya...weird but it's who he is. My current MC has a fetish for hotdogs. It's like a security blanket she only shared with one person, her dad.

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  10. (I never leave the house without concealor either)- I never thought about exploring my character that way but isn't strange how the answer just 'come' to you when you think about them? It's like the character is there, answering your questions. Freaky.

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  11. I love discovering the little quirks! It's so weird when characters speak to you, but definitely entertaining :)

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  12. Wow, Shannon, this is such a great lesson! I thought I knew my characters really well (I write the same as you, letting my MCs run the show), but I don't think I took it this far. I'm definitely going to keep this in mind from now on and dig so deep into my characters I'll hit China. :) Thanks!!

    P.S. Sorry you're still drowning in emails. Let me know if you need to postpone your interview.

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  13. This is a great idea. Please share more great character building exercises! I am definitely lacking in the character development area...

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  14. This is such a good idea! I know a few things about my characters that no reader shall ever know, but I've never wondered if they were keeping secrets from me. Hmmmmm, time for an interrogation!

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  15. Ooo, this comes at a perfect timing for me! I'm working on some character development for my WiP. Your post has given me some interesting things to think about. Thanks!

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  16. Great post! Especially since building characterization is probably our biggest issue to tackle in our first round of revisions on LS2.

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  17. Really solid advice. Thanks for sharing!

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  18. Ooh, I love this post!

    My characters - well, let me see.

    I have one who sucks in his gut so no-one cna actually see the extent of his flab. One who was so hurt when his girlfriend dumped him in junior high that he's spent his whole adult life trying to get back at her... and one who has prawn cocktail crisp fetish but tries to hide it because she thinks it's lower class!

    Fun fun!

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  19. Did you just reference a Johnny Cash song? Awesome!

    Yes, I do listen to Johnny Cash on occasion, when I'm not jamming to symphonic metal or classical music. I have eclectic tastes. Don't judge.

    Also, my characters are usually hiding skeletons in their closets. Multiple ones. Yes.

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  20. WONDERFUL post! I love characters that are "real". I love the little idiosyncracies that make them believable, that make me care, that make me cringe. I love learning my characters secrets. Makes for some interesting writing!

    Happy Thursday,
    Jen

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  21. Great post! And yes, those little things can make a big difference. I think they often take characters from somewhat flat to making them seem more real, more alive. :)

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  22. I love this! I'm always coming across great character building exercises. Some of them, in truth, seem a bit daunting. Some seem clinical. But this is a good one. It builds on the complexities that make a good character great.

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  23. Ha ha ha! It looks like we were thinking along the same lines again - another similar posting day!

    As I said in my post today, this is an area need to develop more fully in my writing. I like this idea. If I pair it with quirks and habits, I may come up with some strong characterization! :-)

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  24. Have you seen that Miss Potter Movie with Rene Zellweger? Yeah...... that is kinda how I am with my characters. And they totally take over my stories. So much so that if I want them to be in a short story but they would rather be in a novel they win.

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  25. Most of the time I know what they're secrets are and like to let the readers figure it out on their own and then reveal it in the end. Personally when reading if I pick up on a tiny character quirk or action then I feel like I know them, and I want anyone who reads my WIP to feel the same way.

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  26. Great post.
    I'm the same as you with my characters, I know everything about them. Even if I don;t put it all in the book.

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  27. What an excellent post. I'm really character driven as well. My characters are the most important part of my story and I try to give them several quirks. Some are never explained and some are. It all depends on their importance.

    I love how you explained the teenage girl and how her not liking her belly button would shape the story. Sometimes I don't think about these things but you've given me a lot to consider.

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  28. Good points Shannon. Knowing our characters inside and out is so very important.

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  29. Good question.

    Lately, I've been thinking a lot about character's secrets, and the motivation behind their keeping them.

    The unreliable narrator--my favorite--will be posting about it super soon

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  30. My characters run the show - and trying to make them do anything they don't want to do has proven to be extremely foolish :)

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  31. This is a great post! And reminds me that part of my struggle with my story right now is that I don't know my character as well as I need to - back to the character profile to really get into her head. :)

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  32. I do have to pull the author-card and make them spill about certain subjects.
    :)
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  33. Great post! My characters definitely run the show not me.

    I like to do short stories from the side characters' view points. It allows me to get into their mindset as well as my main character. Then I understand why they interact the way they do with my protagonist.

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