Creating characters

Published by: Squidge on 11th Feb 2018 | View all blogs by Squidge

Last night, I watched my son perform as 'Joe's Dad' in a youth performance of the Madness musical 'Our House', where all the performers are aged 11-18. 

"I didn't see a teenager, I saw an adult - a grown man", one reviewer wrote. Proud  moment for me and Mr Squidge, because having trod the boards myself in am-dram when I was younger, I could see that Squidgeling T had created such a stage presence as this character, he was totally and convincingly an adult on stage. Suffice to say, tears were shed.

It just set me thinking this morning about how we create our characters when we write them. How we manage their 'page presence'. And y'know, just like watching an actor on stage, it's often the littlest things that make our characters believable.

A look, a tone of voice, a particular response, the way they stand, how they speak. And they musn't lose any of that, not for a moment - we as their creator must be totally immersed in them, allow them to almost take us over for that short while so we write from a genuine character's perspective rather than our own view of that character. 

I wonder if, having done am-dram myself, I unknowingly use my own stagecraft experience in creating my written characters? 

Hmm...off to ponder that one a bit more. 

 

Comments

20 Comments

  • Hilly
    by Hilly 3 months ago
    Interesting, Squidge. The one thing that I was told was 'it doesn't matter if your characters say what they need to say in their own voice, if when you describe what's around them in someone else's voice i.e your own or an authorial voice'. That was an eye-opener for me.
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 3 months ago
    Hmm...I wonder about that. It's true, but if you're describing something around them, it adds a whole extra level of character if it's described how the character might view it, with all their opinion and bias thrown in...
  • Hilly
    by Hilly 3 months ago
    That's what I meant. That you should write it in their voice, not your own.
  • L.
    by L. 3 months ago
    Yes, I agree. I've been told and I do believe that if you want to stay in the character's voice then the landscape seen out of a window by a dying person, would be seen/described differently then through the eyes of a newlywed.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 3 months ago
    Yes. Having decided at an early stage of my WIP on first-person, present tense and a conversational style, I found my MC marching in and taking over, until now pretty nearly everything in it is coloured by his opinions and perception.
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 3 months ago
    Sorry Hilly - I thought you were saying that you could describe things around the character in your 'author voice'! Misunderstood you.
    It's quite a magic moment when your characters do start telling the story for themselves. I've just hit that sweet spot on something I'm rewriting that was all in MY voice before...it's turning out very, very different!
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 3 months ago
    Yes, it's so distinct, so 'other', that there were places, reading through the first draft, where I thought 'That's not Ben talking, it's me,' and rephrased it. Most of the time, though, it just flowed naturally without me even thinking about it. Which is great, obviously.
  • Dolly
    by Dolly 3 months ago
    Interesting observation Squidge. Damascus moment?
  • JB
    by JB 3 months ago
    Moments to cherish Squidge, brings back memories of watching my eldest on stage for the first time.

    Love the topic of 'Page Presence', it's something I'm going through at the moment. I put aside two comp entries I'd been working on for the monthly comp. Basically, I loved the characters and decided they needed more than 400 words. So I'm currently editing and re-editing a grumpy, brash, Irish Spider who's spinning the yarn for me, literally!

    The main issue is to remember it's a spider narrating, he speaks in rapid fire bursts, mimicking his movements. Making him a grumpy, Irish spider has compounded matters. I'll just have to keep him away from the Jamesons.
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 3 months ago
    I think the first time it happens, yes, it's definitely a light-bulb moment as you suddenly 'get' what it means to tell the story as your character experiencing it, rather than as you (the author) observing it.

    Spider sounds interesting, JB - not easy to write that one!
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 3 months ago
    I think that's a really important distinction, Squidge - to *become* your characters, rather than observe your characters, so the acting parallel works.
    I *become* each of my characters while writing, and then it's obvious what they do or say next, IYSWIM. So I head-hop all the time in my, er, head - and try to experience it as they do. Even down to physical sensations and turns of phrase, and how I'd react if I really were them in that situation. It's exhausting, but exhilarating.
    Knowing your characters on the inside is so much easier than trying to build a character from the outside. Those 'character generators' where you attribute various things - like stick on a moustache, or give them a lisp - they make me wilt.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 3 months ago
    Oh yes, Whisks, and even more so those lists of about a hundred questions you 'have' to be able to answer before you can know your character. That's approaching it from the outside, not from the inside like you get when a character comes alive inside your head. It may be an aid, but it's no substitute.

    I don't know where my MC went to school, what his favourite food is, what kind of music he likes. I'm not even sure what he looks like, because when I'm writing him I'm inside him looking out. There's loads of stuff I don't know, but dammit, when I'm writing he lives and breathes.
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 3 months ago
    I know there are authors who immerse themselves in the character by acting them out...Tenacity works that way. I used to love being 'someone else' on stage, but I don't think I'd be brave enough to actually 'become' my characters in real life until I nail them!

    Richard, I think sometimes the list of 'favourite things' can be a good tool to start with, and get authors used to approaching their characters differently, but like you, I'm not convinced that it helps the process feel very natural. I don't think I've ever read a book where the MC's favourite colour is important to the story...apart from in Home! ;)
  • BellaM
    by BellaM 3 months ago
    I watched a very good film the other week (forget the name - sorry) where one character asks the other "What's your favourite colour?" He says a colour and she just gives him a look. He thinks about it and then says "OK, that was a lie, I guess. I'm not 5. I don't have a favourite colour."

    I can't get on with the "getting to know you" approach of listing out all the characteristics. When I started writing one WIP my MC was a mousy, unattractive, hopelessly useless man. Fortunately he put me right on that. As it happens, if I think about it I could now say what his favourite food is and what music he likes, but had I been asked those questions at the beginning I would have answered wrong.
  • J.net
    by J.net 3 months ago
    Interesting blog, Squidge. If a piece of writing doesn't gel, or sticks in any way, I first and foremost look at the language or action to check that is it true to character. One exercise I do is walk around my house, the neighbourhood, or sometimes the local supermarket, making observations (silently outdoors!) in my MC's voice. Even if the surroundings are at odds with my character or the story, it's surprising what it reveals about the character and how it brings out their voice. My ancient queen and recent comp entry character both 'matured' as a result.
  • L.
    by L. 3 months ago
    Bella, I think the film you are referring to is Ex-Machina. Creating characters, especially MC is like slipping inside a skin for me, which I think, is why I tend to write in the 1st POV.
  • JB
    by JB 3 months ago
    J.net, I can't see myself walking round Spinneys (the supermarket here) as my MC, but then again I could give it a go! ;-)
  • mike
    by mike 3 months ago
    Dear Squidge,
    I saw 'Open House' on the stage some time ago and have a DVD of a production. I thought it was one of the better of the pop musicals. A lot of the show in London are really just an excuse to parody a well known group. 'Open House' had a plot. I saw an Andrew Lloyd musical recently and the theatre was half empty - half full? It is a very enjoyable show. If you wish to portray Victorian melodrama, this is how you do it. The musical is based on Collins 'A Woman in White'
    I do learn a lot from theatrical productions but mainly the classical plays. 'A long Day's Journey into Night' is the play with the foghorn. I think the main character is the wife. Jeremy Irons played the lead and, even though I had not seen the play before, I could see many other ways the character could have been presented. There is so much there. How do you portray a drunk? Irons plays an actor from an older tradition. He could well have hammed up the part but chose not too. The wife has a more difficult problem. How do you portray someone on some sort of morphine derivative?
    . Last week I saw s play about a man who kills young girls. The story is told from the point of view o a mother whose child has gone missing. The characters are so much more vivid than in a novel.
  • BellaM
    by BellaM 3 months ago
    L - yes! Thank you. :-)
  • J.net
    by J.net 3 months ago
    JB - only in your thoughts! I would probably be arrested if I turned up at Tesco's wearing battle-garb and carrying a sword :D
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