Saturday, September 20, 2008

Creating Character

Which comes first? Plot or character? Perhaps it depends on the genre of the novel, the story or the screenplay.

In the movie world, people distinguish between 'plot-driven' and 'character-driven' stories.

For me, I have to start with the character. If you have a character but no story, the character can create one. If you have a story but no character, you can drop a character into your story, but you'll have to fit him or her into it. I also like to think in terms of the emotional plot and the surface plot. Surface plot is just that - what is happening on the surface. The emotional plot works as subtext. But I think it's the most important element of all in fiction - whether prose fiction, stage plays or screenplays.

The emotional plot is what powers the story. That's why, for me, the creating of character is paramount. Even in a conventional thriller novel or movie, the excitement of the surface plot depends on how compelling the emotional plot is. And the emotional plot is the engine that is driving the character to do what they do.

A lot of the advice in books and courses for creative writing talk about a character profile and list the kind of questions you can ask about your character. I always want to dig a lot deeper than the usual characteristics they focus on. Many of the questions seem designed to elicit simple yes or no answers. But as people are far more complex than that, the creating of character needs
to be more than thinking about whether, say, they're introvert or extrovert.

A lot of the time it depends on who a person is with. With some people, an individual can be extrovert, with others, introvert. But even that's probably too simplistic.

One of the most exhilarating aspects of creating character in the kind of fiction I try to write is finding ways to free yourself from being afraid of ambiguity, because the most intriguing characters are ambiguous. And to tantalize the reader or audience by concealing things about the character. It's all about keeping the reader or audience hooked because throughout the story they're wanting to know
What lies beneath...
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Jill said...

In the July/August issue of Poets & Writers, there's an essay by Robert Boswell that addresses the question of how to best get to know your characters. The essay is only available in the print version, but towards the end he gives writers some interesting questions to ask about your characters that go beyond, "What kind of foods does your character like?"

They include:

* What did your character forget to do this morning?

* Why does your character think she or he ought to be fired?

* What recent mistake vaguely reminds your character of a previous mistake he or she can't name?

* What stupid thing kept him or her awake last night?

* If you met your character in a bar, what would he or she think of you? In what ways would he or she be right? What would your character get wrong? What would the character see about you that you don't yet understand about yourself?

He delves into other character issues as well; it would be well worth your time to track the article down.

Dr Pauline Kiernan said...

Thanks very much for this, Jill. I'll certainly track this article down. Best wishes Pauline