Friday, March 11, 2011

The Art of Character Development

Before I get down to business I'd like to wish Latayne a very Happy Birthday!
Bonnie and Latayne knocked it out of the park with their posts this week, and on one of my very favorite topics. I love talking about character development. Bonnie brought the process alive in a very unique way by allowing her character Joan to tell us about character development from her point of view. An amazing bit of writing, Bonnie. I loved it. Then Latayne documented how a book can develop its own personality and take the reins from the author, often with an inspired outcome. That could be psychological---emanating from a deep place within the author---or it could be divine. I suspect it's a bit of both.
Joan (a very interesting character that I look forward to reading more about) told us that Bonnie "had to travel to that aching place to find me." Latayne wrote that her book "proved to have a mind of its own ... It has opened dark cupboards I had forgotten, and dragged out their contents." Judging from your comments, these statements spoke to you as they did me. I know a lot about characters finding that aching place, and dragging things out of cupboards that are best left forgotten, as I suspect you do. I'm about to finish a novel that has been most difficult to write. I'm on the final stretch and I can't wait to cross the finish line. This book has dug around in that aching place from page one. I relate to my POV character more than any other I've written. She and I have been one on this journey. I've looked for catharsis in the writing of this story, but what I've found is what I suspected all along: sometimes there is none. That in itself may be cathartic.
But isn't "story" all about dark cupboards and that aching place? Getting beyond surface issues to the heart of the struggles that make us human? And charting the growth that comes from the very worst circumstances? Don't we place our characters, by precise design, into those circumstances for the purpose of seeing them become someone better and stronger and more able to help others through their own challenges? It is for the fiction I love to read and the fiction I love to write. While I've known this for years, I'd never seen myself as a real-life POV character quite like I did after reading Lynn Dean's winning essay in our March Forth contest. She wrote, "Like a book, the story of our lives has an Author who perfects our faith---One who endured for the sake of a happy ending and emerged victorious. As in a novel, the divine Author writes struggle into our stories, shaping our character through conflict. Without challenges we have no story. Without obstacles we do not grow. And yet our Author paces our stories, interspersing times of trial with Sabbath sequels." What a beautiful portrayal of the life of the believer. What a beautiful portrayal of the Divine Author.
I truly love fleshing out characters in the writing process, who first come "mute" and "unfounded" as Bonnie wrote, then evolve into 3-dimensional people we know as well as we know ourselves. But getting to know them is like getting to know anyone, one layer at a time. The art of character development is letting our readers come to know them the very same way, a little at a time (because I for one don't trust people who bare it all too soon), until they're such close friends they don't want to say goodbye at the end of the book. That to me is the ultimate test in a story's success, when I close the cover and want to linger in the afterglow. When I don't even want to lay the book down for fear of losing the connection. That doesn't happen nearly often enough, but when it does I know the author has done her job. And I love it.
Right now I'm getting to know a brand new character, and all I can say is, "It's about time." For the past 20+ years, about 2/3 of the way through every novel I've written, a story-worthy idea has come to me, and every time it's resulted in a completed novel. Like most authors, I get ideas all the time, but it's the story-worthy idea I wait for, because not all ideas qualify. But here I am, nearing the end of my WIP, with no clear direction of where to go from here. Until a few nights ago, that is. I had just gone to bed and was giving my imagination a few more minutes to play when all of a sudden my very earliest memory came to mind. I know enough by now to know my thoughts at such times aren't random so, using the wonderful lighted notebook Debbie told us about a couple of years ago, I wrote down my thoughts. And waited. Because that's how it works with me. My imagination gives me one bite, then another. And I know the process can take a while, so I relax and go with the flow. What emerged was the face and name of a 15 or 16 year old girl. And then, as I lay there in the dark, I discovered her very earliest memory. It was even more traumatic than mine. And from that came the opening line of what I hope will be my next WIP. Now other characters are presenting themselves to me along with plot points. I write them down but, as I always do, keep everyone at bay until my current novel is finished. But how I love the process. How I look forward to getting to know them.
That's how it works with me. What about you? As a novelist how do you get acquainted with your characters? As a reader what was the last book you read that left you wanting to linger in the afterglow?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Those lines you mentioned from Latayne (Happy Birthday!) and Bonnie's posts were the ones that nestled inside of me. Still with me.

Oh Sharon, I love the thrill of when a new idea strikes or a piece becomes story-worthy! So cool that happened for you.

I'm writing a post for Monday called I Dream in Characters. That's how much of my WIP has come to me--in my dreams. And like you, bit by bit.

I cannot wait to read these books you are mentioning! Cannot. Wait!

~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, thank you for that glimpse inside your mind. I think it's fascinating that new stories would occur to you at about the same place in the writing of a novel. It's as if the Lord sees that your trajectory for one story is fixed and you can take your eyes off it for a bit to consider something new.

Perhaps this is another reflection of the way that authors can mirror Jesus, who like an author is "before all things" in the act of creation, whether it be universes or stories, and "in whom all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17, NIV).

No wonder we love being writers.

Nicole said...

Beautiful rendition, Sharon. Very cool.

Marian said...

"The art of character development is letting our readers come to know them the very same way, a little at a time (because I for one don't trust people who bare it all too soon), until they're such close friends they don't want to say goodbye at the end of the book."

That's what I needed to know.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Happy birthday, Latayne!!

I'm not sure how I get acquainted with my characters. Templates don't really work for me. I tend to think about them a lot. I get a sense of who they are. Then I stick them in story situations and see what they'll do.

I do struggle with this. My main characters in particular usually defy neat categorization, and that makes the OCD part of my brain itch.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

P.S. Sharon, I love that concept of letting your imagination play before you fall asleep. A lighted notebook - what a great idea.

Latayne C Scott said...

Thank you, Sharon, Wendy and Karen, for the birthday wishes!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Characters. I love to invent them randomly for the people I encounter. It makes an ordinary day remarkable. The grocery clerk who refuses to smile no matter how I compliment her becomes a teen mom wondering how to connect with her 2 year old son as she scans the sushi. The newspaper editor I meet at the dog park has traveled to Asia recently and harbours a deadly parasite, if only she knew. The group of teenagers hollering at each other from opposite sides of the cross walk are on their way to a march protesting human trafficking because one of their older sisters has disappeared and returned with the scars to prove it. The piliated woodpecker tapping his mate's favourite rhythm lustily on the tree cocks his head and listens for her laughing answer and thinks of the generations he seeks to sire to fill the woods. Then my mind wonders how to weave them into a uniform plot.....
Oh! the teen mum is the older sister and her two year old is in Asia, born during her enslavement. The editor was following a story about the slave trade and the woodpecker.....excavates a hole that is somehow important to the plot... Now if I only had time to write instead of shopping, walking the dog and researching woodpeckers for school projects.

H said...

I'm sorry, my mind was in overdrive last night and I have another plot for those characters I mentioned.
The protest is against the closing of a wildlife area where the teens like to have their orgies. The grocery clerk is the daughter of the editor who has joined a weird cult which has an odd initiation ceremony that has something to do with woodpeckers.