02 May 2009

Getting Into Character

I tend to read many different types of books and watch a wide variety of movies and TV shows. No matter the genre, the books, movies, and TV shows that I absolutely love have something in common: off-the-wall characters.

To take examples from the TV world: the sassy quips of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the gruff charm of Gregory House, the over-the-top-obsessive yet brilliant Adrian Monk, scientific and quirky Gil Grissom (CSI); there is something special about all of them, something unlike all the thousands of other characters out there. Unique. Just like flesh and blood human beings are unique.

How does a writer get into a character? Well, every writer has a different technique; some do character journals, some fill out long, involved forms or checklists, and some simply write the story and allow the character to flesh out along with the plot. The technique isn’t important. In my opinion, the important thing is that the writer crosses a line, the line where the character becomes real to the writer.

Notice that I didn’t say the writer should believe the character is real—that way lies insanity. No, what I’m talking about is the writer’s ability to see the character in their head as a fully-formed person. Let’s invent a character to illustrate. How about the heroine’s father? Male, middle aged, businessman, about 6 feet tall. That may be enough for a walk-on character the reader sees for one scene. But let’s say he’s going to play a bigger part in the story. Now what? Is he warm or cold in his relationship to his daughter? Did he spend time with her as a child? Now? Is he still protective of his, now grown up, little girl. How does he feel about his wife? Still married? Let’s say he plays a round of golf during the story, and one hole proves to be quite problematic. You could write the scene very straightforward, or you could let a huge portion of personality come out. Maybe like this:

You can’t make that stuff up. Well, yes you can, but you have to think outside the box — pretty far outside the box.

The next time you encounter an amazing character in a book or movie, you know the writer reached deep into the deep dark recesses of — reality.
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