While I wasn’t very busy writing blog posts this summer, I was very busy writing. And some of that writing was actually pre-writing.
Now, my definition of pre-writing may be different from any other definition. I’m okay with this. For me, it’s not about whatever writing or thinking I do before I start drafting. (I usually think of that as plotting and planning and researching.) No. It’s more about the specific writing I do to help me get into a character’s head. (If this has a different name, please enlighten me.)
Recently I had a male character who was too good to be true. He was whatever the main character needed him to be, so he wasn’t very interesting. He needed his own goals, motivations, conflicts. His own personality. Somehow I’d forgotten to give him a personality. As a result, his relationship with the main character wasn’t very interesting either. And it needed to be. Their relationship was important.
So I had him write the main character some letters at different points in their relationship, starting with the first time he saw her. At first mostly backstory came out of it, but that backstory was important to figuring out who he was. Then I had him write letters to people in his life from before the story, and journal entries about the major turning points in his relationship with the main character. And voilà. I had a character.
I have found this method useful in the past, so really should make it part of my normal routine. Instead, it’s like a wonderful surprise every time I think to try it.
What are some of your favorite ways to get to the guts of a character?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about character. What makes a good character? How do you balance a character’s flaws with the qualities needed to move the plot along? What makes a character likable (or, better word, relatable)? What does likable really mean anyway?
A few months ago, A-Read read The Hunger Games and I was reminded about how prickly Katniss is. During her preparations for the Games, she is often told she has to find ways to make others like her, or find ways around her unlikability. A writer friend and I decided to reread the beginning of The Hunger Games and try to determine what made a potentially unlikable character likable.
(Preface: It’s hard to find what makes Katniss unlikable when I’ve read the entire trilogy and seen all the movies. I know her. I like her. I root for her.)
In the first chapter, there are several small things that make her potentially unlikable. But there are many things that make her likable and they all have to do with relationships. Her relationship with Prim. Her relationship with Gale. Her relationship with Madge. Even her relationship with Peeta at that early stage when they’ve never spoken a single word to each other. It’s especially her relationship with Prim, both gentle and fierce at the same time, that humanizes Katniss and makes you like her. How she’ll protect and provide for Prim above herself, to the point of risking death for her.
This importance of relationships really struck me. Agents and editors often say they want character-driven novels. But what makes a character? It’s more than someone’s likes and dislikes, goals and dreams. Conflict moves a plot forward. And conflict comes from relationships.
People can tell you how to create relatable characters, over and over and over. But sometimes you have to see it for yourself, see it in action, and really feel it (show don’t tell, right?).
Who else would you describe as prickly and potentially unlikable, and how did the author make you root for her or him?