Do you ever get the feeling a character isn’t telling you everything there is to know about him or herself?
I’ve been getting this feeling a lot lately, and it makes writing very difficult for an author trying to finish a story by a certain date. Of course, I can always just push through, and discover my characters as I go along—but that’s a pastime best left to the reader side of the equation. No one wants to read a novel written by an author who clearly doesn’t know her own characters well enough to have coffee with them, let alone write an entire 400 page opus about their lives. Reader, have you ever encountered a book like that? I certainly have, often enough to know that I NEVER want to write one!
So what is a writer to do when she has shy and unforthcoming characters who want to shuffle their feet and button their lips when it is most crucial that they reveal themselves in every stunning particular?
Well, I’ve come up with a theory I’m going to call Dear Writer: You Know More Than You Realize! In Fact, You Know EVERYTHING.
Because it’s true, isn’t it? As much as we feel like the characters we write exist outside of ourselves, in our more logical moments we writers have to admit that they don’t. Our characters come from within us, inspired and influenced by the world around us, which we filter back inside of ourselves to produce characters that are well-realized, dead-ringers for actual living and breathing specimens of humanity. Therefore, there is NOTHING we don’t know about our characters. All we have to do is find the right tool to drag the information up out of the recesses of our minds and hearts, rather like those crochet-hook type implements the ancient Egyptians used to poke up post-mortal noses in order to trawl for the brains of the dead. Gross? Maybe. But very similar to the delicacy and precision with which characterization must be handled.
So what sort of crochet-hook type brain-trawler have I been using to help me realize that I know everything about my character? It’s simple, Dear Reader: I’ve gone back to the schoolroom. Remember all of those brightly-coloured Xerox-copied worksheets your grade-school teachers used to pass around for homework and in-class assignments? Ever feel nostalgic about filling them in, with the clock ticking peacefully and your classmates scribbling stealthy notes about who likes who, with check-boxes labeled Yes, No, Maybe So? I certainly do. So I’ve started doing worksheets again, my friends. Characterization worksheets that help me dredge up every last morsel of information I don’t think I know about my characters’ motivations, back-stories, flaws and virtues, physical characteristics and mannerisms—you get the picture. And guess what? The Worksheet System really works! AND it’s fun!
Here are some of the ones I’ve been using, rummaged up on the internet:
Anne Olwin’s Character Development Sheet
The Writer’s Craft Character Development Worksheet by Sherry Wilson
The EPIGUIDE.COM Character Chart for Fiction Writers by Kira Lerner and Toni Walker
I hope the writers among you find these worksheets as fun and helpful as I have—and that you rest assured that you really DO know everything about your characters—even though I am sure they will still manage to surprise you in new and innovative ways, just to keep you dancing on your toes.
As for you readers, I hope the books you read are written by writers who know that they know everything about their characters—and consistently prove it, without tedious information dumps left in steaming, impenetrable piles about the place. Unless you like that sort of thing.
Happy reading and writing!