Friday, June 19, 2009

Guest Blogger Jeff Gerke: Cardboard Characters a Problem?

Welcome back, Jeff! Here's part II of Jeff's blog about plotting and character development. Last time, he helped writers with soundly developed characters find their story. Today, for those of you who are story-firsters, Jeff offers pointers on rounding out your characters. It seems Jeff understands your dilemma from a personal experience.
For those who missed Jeff last Friday, you really must scroll down and read his post. He knows what he's talking about. He has experience as an editor for the biggest houses in CBA, writes fiction, & heads a publishing house. All that & a new papa too!

Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist arose out of a crisis in my own fiction writing.

I had this sinking feeling that I didn't really know what I was doing with my characters. I felt that my characters ought to be more...something...than how they were coming out in my stories. But I didn't know what to do about it so I just let them be.

Guess what the #1 critical comment was on those early stories? Somewhat shallow characters. The reviewers were actually nicer than I thought I deserved. I thought I'd used stereotypes and cardboard cutouts.

So began my quest to figure out how to create richer, more realistic characters for my novels. I hit the bookstore and tried multiple books on character creation. They were all very hard for me--like the calculus I mentioned last time--and I never felt like I'd figured anything out about my story cast, even after all that work.

When it came time to decide what my next fiction trilogy should be, I decided to set a challenge before myself: Could I write a character-driven series with an ensemble cast?

In order to do that, I knew I needed to radically improve my character-creation abilities. But that was kind of the whole point. I wanted to make myself learn it, so I committed to doing this series. Since the writing books didn't help me, I decided I'd better create a system of my own.

In the absence of an innate understanding of characters and personalities, I turned to psychology books. I eventually discovered Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey. Keirsey is a proponent of the Myers-Briggs teachings on temperaments.

The premise is that there are only 16 main personality types on the earth. In his book he identifies them very well, in terms of what they're like, how they talk, what jobs they gravitate toward, how they are as spouses and parents, what temperament they tend to marry, etc.

It's the kind of hard facts that a plot guy like me could wrap his brain around.

But it instantly occurred to me that characters have to be more than just their temperament. Otherwise I would be a clone to the other 375 million people who shared my temperament, and I knew that wasn't true. So, what accounts for the differences in people beyond their core temperament?

I began thinking about the obvious: gender, age, physical appearance, ethnicity, educational background, intelligence, etc. Then the not so obvious: birth order, love language, spiritual gift, major life events, disabilities, and more.

By the time I was through, I'd created a system that began with a core temperament but then added layer after layer of specificity that further defined the character and made him or her different from every other person--even those with the same temperament.

The centerpiece of the system was the formation of the character's inner journey, or character arc. The best fiction, in my opinion, is that in which someone changes. Indeed, you might say that fiction is about change. I also liked the inner journey part of character creation because it felt a bit like plot creation. Familiar terrain.

The system culminates in a monologue scene in which the person is presented in the penultimate setting for that character, doing and saying things that reveal who this character is--and done and said in this character's characteristic way. Writing that monologue is like graduation. When it's done, the character is fully baked. And the monologue scene itself is actually something you can adapt to introduce the character the first time you bring him onstage.

After using that system for the new trilogy of novels--and no longer hearing from critics that my characters were flat (I heard the opposite, actually)--I realized I was onto something. Something that might help other writers who are character-challenged.

Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist is exactly the system I use to create my own characters. It's a system of questions that you answer in the form provided. Then you summarize each section and synthesize the character as he or she exists so far.

At the end of taking a character through the system, you will utterly know this person, love (or love to despise) this person, and be champing at the bit to bring this person onstage.


Changing gears now, let's look at how I created How To Find Your Story and what it entails.

Plot creation comes easily to me, as I've said. But I'm a teacher, which means I enjoy explaining to eager learners anything I happen to know about. I also realize that at least half the novelists out there (and I suspect it's more like two-thirds) are character-first novelists. They create amazing characters but have little for these interesting people to do.

If I could create a system that allowed character-first novelists to create gripping plots that featured their terrific characters, I might stand to help a lot of people.

So I sat down to design what I was originally calling Plot-Creation for the Character-First Novelist, but which eventually became How To Find Your Story.

The key discovery I made was that the best way to build a plot was to grow it out of character.

I mentioned earlier that the creation of a solid inner journey for a character feels like plot work. I realized that, in truth, a main character's inner journey actually is 75% of a good plot for a novel. When I realized I could do this plot creation system from a starting point of character, I knew I was onto something that all those character-firsters could understand.

So the main character's inner journey becomes the first major component of plot in How To Find Your Story. The major movements of this character arc constitute the internal plot, if you will. What was left was to form an external structure that amplified this inner journey and gave it a stage upon which to play.

How To Find Your Story includes interactive discussions of genre, era, theme, backdrop, antagonist, and more. But the major pieces are the inner journey and the outer journey, which I talk about in terms of three act structure.

I have been so gratified to hear comments like Jeannie Campbell's on last week's blog: "I'm doubt. Jeff's books are amazing... I had a plot developed out of my character's intrinsic goals before I even knew what I was looking at!"

That's what I'm after: plot developing out of character. With that kind of system, character-first novelists are on familiar ground from the word Go, and they come up with page-turning, character-driven plots that satisfy the reader, feature the characters beautifully, and are certain to achieve what the author wanted to do with the story.

Both How To Find Your Story and Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist consist of two main files: instructions and template. The template is a Word document that is a color-coded table. On the left are questions and on the right are blanks for your answers. This is the key piece of each system, and you go through it once for each story or character you want to develop. The other piece is a PDF document that expounds upon what to think about as you fill out the template.

When I teach the continuing fiction track at writers' conferences, I now use this system. First I have the class go through an abbreviated version of Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist--right there in class--and then we take that character and build a plot around her using a scaled-down version of How To Find Your Story. It's been very helpful for many novelists, both those who are still aspiring and those who are multiply published.

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Patti Hill said...

Thanks for the great tips about rounding out your characters. People who know me swore that my first protagonist was me. I adamantly denied so then, but truth be knowned, I'm definitely Mibby. Since then, it's been fun to develop characters who are truly different from me and let them do things I would never do. This is vicarious living at its best. Come back soon, Jeff!

Patti Hill said...

Always, always, ALWAYS proofread!! I know that "knowned" is not a real word. Someone tell my fingers!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks for your post, Jeff. I prefer to write and read character-driven novels, but I realize that an engaging plot is crucial, too. When I'm choosing a book to read, I want to see something revealed about the character's inner workings from the first page. If it opens with physical description of the character, I find it hard to continue.