Thursday, August 25, 2011

Guess Who?: The Game of Characters

Getting to know your character is like playing Guess Who?

You have this image of what your character looks like in your head, but figuring out exactly what the character looks like on paper is another game all together. You have to know exactly who your character is before you can start throwing her into situations. I'm a pantser. I don't know the plot before I write--but always know my main character. Or I try.

If you don't know your character then you won't be able to tell his or her story. I don't think you have to know EVERY detail of your character, but you have to know enough to get a good picture of him or her. That's how it's like Guess Who?

In the game, you have a pictures of all the characters and you have to figure out which one your opponent has. To do that, you have to ask yes or no questions. "Is your character a boy?" "Does he have glasses?" "Does he have a mustache?" "Does he have red hair?" You have to know the basic fundamentals before you can jump into the deeper layers of figuring out who the character. That's where Guess Who? analogy falls apart--because there is no chance to delve deeper into your character. It's a game. But when you're writing, asking the questions is only the first step.

I have this method. I believe that a character--real or fictional--can be summarized in five words or less.

That's pretty crazy to think about when you start thinking about a character being a person and a person being so complex and individual. When you think about someone's life, about the essence of who they are, you could probably make a list of all the aspects of that person's character. In five words or less you can sum up their character. It may not be EVERY aspect of who that person is, but it's the things that are most recognized by you when you think of them.

I did this for my grandma just to prove it. My list for her is about sixty-seven items BUT when I started to look at these things and narrow them down, I ended with four words: passionate, loving, strong, generous. My grandma's character can be summed up in four words because underneath everything she did in her life, these were her driving forces. They were the things that powered all the other things.

I took this method and applied to some of my favorite characters from television and books.  (If you know me, you'll probably wonder why Doctor Who isn't here. Simple: I couldn't decide who I wanted to use. So, I have some goodies with DW coming up later. Promise.)

Merlin from MERLIN
Merlin is a great character. From the first episode, he's this strong force of a boy struggling with who he is. Even as his character grows and faces new challenges he remains constant while learning from it. His words: Loyal. Determined. Genuine. Courageous. Honest.

Eric Northman from TRUE BLOOD
I haven't read the books, so I can only base this off the show. But Eric Northman can definitely be summed up in five words or less. His words were challenging because there are so many layers and so much growth as a character. Each season he's a new person because a new side is revealed, but he's still the same Eric underneath. And the beautiful man is overflowing in swagger and super sexiness. These are the five I picked for him: Dangerous. Unyielding. Arrogant. Haughty. Wealthy. Depraved. Super sexy.... (Oh. That's more than five. Sorry. He's just so fantastic. He's the GOD of Hot Boys and hot boys=WIN. Fine. I'll underline the five I pick most.)

Mrs. Weasley from HARRY POTTER
Mrs. Weasley is the mama everyone wants to have. I mean, I don't really have to explain her to anyone do I? Her words: Compassionate. Smart. Generous. Protective.

Sawyer from LOST
Sawyer is another challenging character to summarize in five words or less. Each season we learned so much more about James "Sawyer" Ford aka James LaFleur. (He even had multiple names!) He starts off rough around the edges and then he evolves into something so incredible. His words: Tormented. Driven. Committed. Surprising.

Katniss Everdeen from THE HUNGER GAMES
Is it any surprise that I included Katniss Everdeen? I mean, how do you talk about characters and not include her? Suzanne Collins built a fantastic character. I'm re-reading this book right now and I read this line today: "My father knew he taught me right before he was blown into bits in a mine explosion. There was nothing even to bury. I was eleven then. Five years later I still wake up screaming for him to run." My five words for her:  Ardent. Perseverant. Jaded. Intense. Survivor.

Emerson from HOURGLASS
I really wanted to include a YA book with a strong female protagonist who was so different than Katniss. Emerson Cole is that person. She's a kick-butt character and I love her completely. Her words: Delightful. Fire-y. Sarcastic. Honest. Gentle.

The people we bring to life on the pages, the characters we read, the ones we watch on television--each one can be summed up in five words or less. Like I said, it's not going to be every quality of that person, but they are going to be the most important ones. These five (or less) words--qualities of character--are the things we must portray on the pages. It's not something we can leave out or we'll leave readers (and ourselves!) playing Guess Who? It won't be a deep relationship and it won't tell anyone anything important.

Something I've learned about my main character--she has her own opinions. She didn't tell me her name until I was 10K into the first draft. She's always a surprise and I really had to get to know her and adjust the image I had of her in my head. The best way to do that was by figuring out her five words: Conflicted. Stubborn. Affectionate. Hopeful. Sacrificial. 

Do you know what words you would use to describe your character? If so, chime in below and tell us. If not, how can you figure it out?

1 comment:

  1. I loved this post. Those words sum up Eric perfectly! And I think you nailed Sawyer quite well, too. I'm not as familiar with the other characters, but I got a good sense of who they were by their word lists. :D