Friday, March 20, 2020

Interview Your Characters: Character Lists Coax Them Out of Hiding

In one of my favorite, easy-read, writing-craft books, Write Away, mystery author Elizabeth George talks about her writing process as she begins a new book.  She first writes detailed ideas about the plot.  She also researches the setting, often with trips to the location she's thinking of using.  And she always puts together a character list.

I didn't know what she meant by character list, but I soon found out they consist of many pages of stream-of-consciousness ideas about each main player in her book.  If you read Write Away (highly recommend), you'll see an example from her novel, In the Presence of the Enemy.  She shows the entire character list for one of her main characters, Eve Bowen.

I was intrigued.  I'd always interviewed my characters, sitting them down in an imaginary room and asking tough questions (which they sometimes didn't answer).  But I also liked the creativity of George's character lists.  While an interview might get good information out of a character that needed a vividness upgrade, such a stream-of-consciousness writing exercise could zero in on both the outer appearance and external life of a  character, and the psychology behind their motivations--what I call the outer story and inner story

Here's an excerpt of George's character list (outer story) for Eve Bowen:  "She is about five feet six inches tall.  She exercises at a gym early in the morning.  She wears makeup and wears it well, the sort of application that ends up looking like she doesn't have any on in the first place.  She wears only a wedding band, a gold watch, and the same kind of earrings all the time:  button types that match her outfits."  And George's character list (inner story) for Eve:  "Eve can't forgive injuries.  That's her greatest weakness.  Once you're her enemy, you're her enemy forever."

Character lists have been an ongoing element in my own writing process for the last two novels.  As I get to know a character better, the list might expand, change, take a 180, revealing new information.  

This week, with my upcoming afternoon workshop on characters on April 9 at the Loft, I've been testing out different ways to approach character lists.  In the workshop, we're working with both internal and external dilemmas for our characters, so I'm experimenting with the contrasts of that:  what a character appears to be, outwardly, in contrast with who she really is on the inside.

If you'd like to try the first steps of the exercise I'm developing for the class, here's what to do:  

1.  Find a character, either someone fictional or someone real, who is a player in your book.  Start a character list for this person:  1/2 page minimum about their outer story (how their outer life appears, what they do every day, their appearance, etc.) and  1/2 page minimum about their inner story (their secret longings, fears, desires; their memories, etc.).

Write more if you want, if you can.  I'm using character lists for my current novel that run several  pages, revealing a lot I didn't know!  A fun way to get unstuck.

And if you'd like to join me in person on April 9, to learn more, click on the link in the margin to the right.

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