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On The Table Read, “the best creativity magazine in the UK“, author Brieanna Wilkoff shares her writing advice for how to get to know your characters and why it is important for your story.
Written by Brieanna Wilkoff
Someone acting out of character can be jarring, whether it’s in real life or the fictional world of a novel. So I take great pains when writing to consider as many aspects of the people on the page as possible—their physical appearance; the clothes they wear; where they live; their vocabulary, including the sentence structure and swear words they use; what they like to eat; their personality type; the hobbies or interests they have; the nature of their relationships with family and friends; and what they want, both superficially and on a deeper level.
For I’ll Be There for You, my debut contemporary young adult novel, I employed several tips and tricks to get to know the characters inside and out.
Lists Of Wants
At a Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua many years ago, a faculty member advised session attendees to make a list of the things our characters want. I found this exercise to be enormously helpful, so at the start of each new book project, I list 50 things the main character wants, 25 for the secondary characters, and 10 for important tertiary characters. The pencil moves quickly at first, but to complete the lists, I have to dig deep, often uncovering details about the characters that influence the direction the story takes from there.
The main character in I’ll Be There for You is a 16-year-old girl named Rae. Her father died a year prior, and in her grief and guilt over the part she played, Rae has shut herself off from the world. Only after Mac, a boy with a charming smile who thinks any problem can be solved with a show tune, convinces her to audition for the school play does she start to open up again. In my notes for the novel, the first 7 items I wrote under “What Rae Wants” are:
1. Her dad back
2. To be close to her mom again
3. To act/sing/perform
4. To not feel like she’s carrying a secret (that her dad died because of her)
5. To honor her father’s memory/to make her dad proud
6. Friends that aren’t as close to the loss of her father
7. For someone to love her
All of these are fundamental to the plot of the novel and to the character growth Rae experiences. But some other items on the list are just plain fun:
48. Gummy worms
50. Flavored lattes that don’t taste like coffee
The trivial wishes can help when adding sensory details to a scene, while the core desires suggest the emotional arc necessary for the story to reach a satisfying conclusion, which leads to the second exercise I utilize before putting pen to paper.
I highly recommend the craft book GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. In essence, GMC consists of a sentence that explains what a character wants, why they want it, and why they can’t have it, and it applies both externally (the plot) and internally (the inner journey/growth): Character 1 wants X because Y but can’t get it because Z. X is the goal, Y is the motivation, and Z is the conflict.
Anyone who has a character arc in the story—typically the main character and several secondary characters—is a good candidate for GMC. Making sure motivations are clear and strong helps readers root for your characters even when they make bad choices, because we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Conflict intense enough to thwart characters’ aspirations raises the stakes such that readers will be on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the character will prevail. The external obstacles form the plot; the internal highlight the lesson the character needs to learn in order to grow.
For Rae in I’ll Be There for You, the loss of her father drives both her external and her internal GMC:
Rae wants to “pay it forward” after a stranger does something unexpectedly kind because she hopes doing good for others might, in a small way, make up for failing her dad, but a falling-out with Mac and his harsh, but true, words jeopardize the kindness campaign she’s organizing.
Rae wants to move on after the death of her father because her pain and guilt are making her lonely and unhappy, but she can’t forgive herself for being the reason he died.
Finally, after I have a pretty good handle on the inner lives of the starring players in my drama, I give some thought to what the rest of the world sees.
As if I’m casting my book as a movie, I search for photographs that fit the mental image I have of the characters. There are plenty of sites you can use, but I use the stock photography site Shutterstock to create a collection of images for each of my novels. I search based on general character traits, but the goal isn’t an exact match; I want some physical similarities but I make my selections based on less tangible qualities—a smile that looks mischievous, or a facial expression or body language that suggests strength or vulnerability. Even if no one else sees these images, they help solidify my concept of the characters.
The best characters feel like real people, which is why readers fall in love with them. Taking the time to learn about their every facet helps them jump off the page and into readers’ hearts, and gives them a life of their own. I still hear Rae and Mac bantering in my head….
Find more from Brieanna Wilkoff now:
My website is brieannawilkoff.com, and various purchase links for the book can be found there.
I’ve also started a kindness initiative aimed at inspiring 50,000 acts of kindness, which you can learn more about at kindnessdominoeffect.com.
The rest of my links are below:
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