Friday, November 6, 2009

My Favorite Characters

I taught a class on creating characters last week at our public library. It was a fun opportunity to review some of my favorite people in literature. I read brief character descriptions from some of my favorite books, then discussed how I created mine.

The first excerpt I read was from The Secret Garden, one of my all-time favorite books when I was growing up. Frances Hodgson Burnett said of her character: "When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression." I loved Mary as she outgrew her self-absorption and was curious (and brave!) enough to investigate the crying sounds in the big scary house and find Colin, then bully him into a cure.

I read many more, but there isn't room nor time to go into all of them here. I did, however, read an example from Emeralds and Espionage, my first book, showing a serious flaw in character introduction. My heroine plunges into her adventure without the reader having any idea who she is or what she looks like - and in the first few drafts, it remained that way until some kind editor pointed out that it was about 25 pages into the book before the reader ever knew her name. My only excuse was that it was my first book - and that I clearly saw her and knew all about her. I just failed to communicate that early on to my readers.

I liked Allison. She was adventurous, head-strong, intelligent - after all, she spoke a dozen different languages. :) And she was beautiful, but humble through it all. (All the things I wanted to be, I guess.) When I created her, I went through the entire character sketch so that I knew everything about her: what she like to eat, read, listen to, do in her spare time, her parentage, her job, her car, her friends, her dreams. All these things will have a bearing on what she does and how she reacts in any given situation. I had to know about her education, ethnicity, possessions, obsessions, beliefs, religion, ambitions, fears, attitudes, character flaws and strengths as well.

Some of the participants in the class asked if this was really necessary when you write a book. I feel that it is absolutely essential. If you know your character, you know how she/he will react when faced with a problem, in an emergency, in a tense situation or confrontation. And if you write a character sketch, you won't have to go back later and see if her eyes were blue, green, hazel, brown or gray.

I was diligent in forming Allison beforehand, but didn't think it was necessary with the secondary characters, but as they began playing a major role in the story, I discovered their history and description needed to be fleshed out in a character sketch. As I added the Anastasia team, it was absolutely necessary to do that for them, or I could never have kept up with their idiosyncracies which are always an important part of any character.

I loved Maggie McKenzie. I had so many story lines for her, so much possibility. I'm sad that she is retired. A life snuffed out too soon.

So I am a total advocate of doing an extensive character sketch on your main characters. If they have fun quirks, make them a part of the story. Let your readers empathize with their flaws and rejoice in their strengths. If you know your characters well, this should make writing about them so much easier - and even fun!


Melanie Goldmund said...

Maggie McKenzie is retired? Oh, no! What happened?

I loved her so much in the first book, and am really looking forward to reading the second book as soon as I can get my hands on it (a bit difficult when I and the book of my desires are on separate continents.)

*sniff* Yup, snuffed out too soon.

Jeri Gilchrist said...

Wonderful post and excellent advice, Lynn. I don't always do this as thoroughly as I should and often times when I do, it's not as early on in my writing as I should have done. You're right, character description makes writing so much easier-- especially when you "know" who your character really is.

I loved your character Maggie McKenzie too. :)

Lynn Gardner said...

That does present a problem, Melanie. Where do you live? I'm delighted you enjoyed reading about Maggie. At this point, I had not planned to write fiction again, but I've had so many requests for the rest of the story - the wedding, that who knows! I may have to eat my words and resurrect her. :) Lynn

Melanie Goldmund said...

Lynn, I live in Germany. I love reading blogs like these so that I know which books to buy or borrow when I go back to SLC to visit my family.

And sorry, but I got the impression from your post that an exterior force (such as your publisher) had forced Maggie to "retire." I didn't understand that you'd made a choice to give up fiction -- which I think is too bad, but then, we all have to follow our hearts. :-)

Michele Ashman Bell said...

Lynn, I am so glad you posted this reminder that just because we see our characters in our minds it doesn't mean the reader sees the same thing. We need to make sure we communicate this to our readers so they can have their own visual experience when they read. That's what makes writing and reading so magical. Awesome post!