How Writers Do It: Deepening Your Characters

This is the third week of the awesome Corrine Jackson's series on "How Writers Do It." Honestly, I'm kind of at a loss on this week's discussion. I haven't been writing that long, and consequently don't have a lot of experience with plot development, character development, emotional development, and well, pretty much anything that ends with "development." So, it was a great time to turn to the great book Writing Down to the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This will probably be more my response to her readings than my actual ideas on how I do things, since really, as you will see, I probably don't do them in this case. But, it's a learning process! So, here is this week's topic:

Deeping your characters: What is at the heart of a complex character?

Ha! That's a great question, Cory! It's an important question, and probably one any writer should know. Let's see what Goldberg has to say on this subject. Actually, there weren't any actual chapters devoted to character development. However, there were several bits and pieces of different chapters that I felt offered good advice on details. Details about places, things, people, psychology, etc. All of these go into a complex character, in my opinion. Here are several quotes from Goldberg and my thoughts on each.
...use original detail in your writing. Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.
The chapter this came from was one on details in general. She mostly talked about taking in details of things and places around you and transplanting those real details into your writing. By doing so, it causes your imagination to build on the original details, allowing itself to come up with imagined details as well. I think this is important in developing a complex character as well. We all feel and experience life in different ways, and those feelings and experiences are real. I would venture to guess that even a person with the simplest life is complex in some way. Maybe they have a turmoil of emotions that they can't deal with. Or maybe they have a secret in their past that is the basis for how they think and act now. Whatever it is, it's real. So why not use that, your own experiences and emotions, to feed your imagination for your characters to development deeper layers?
Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and al winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived.
This quote was especially powerful for me, but also raised a couple of questions. First, I think Goldberg eloquently states kind of what I just discussed above, or at least I took it to mean that. We should use what we know, what we feel, who we are, and everything that makes us to pour into our characters. Goldberg goes on to talk about how it's not just us we should pay attention to, but everyone. People matter. People exist and they love and hate and feel sadness and joy in different ways. They have different backgrounds and families, schooling and friendships. We're all different. Observation and understanding are a writer's best friends. Not only should we draw on ourselves, but we should draw on others. By using the idea in the first quote (transplanting original detail) we create characters based on bits of people, allowing our creativity to open up and creates layers of our characters that we might not have known existed before we started thinking of real people.

This isn't to say that any of my characters are based on real people. They aren't. I don't know anyone exactly like Fred, Aeron, or Olivia. But I do know people who have certain qualities that each of them hold, myself included. I also know that bits and pieces of who I wish I could be are in each one of them. Some of their experiences are based on my own and those of others I've talked to. Others are based on observations with my own imagination there to fill in the motivations for their actions.

I'm not saying any of my characters are complex. In fact, sometimes I worry that they are pretty superficial. But, then I think about some conversations I've had with friends and all the introspection I've done to try and figure out why I am the way that I am, and it brings in new ideas. My characters jump out and say, "Hey! That happened to me!" And it goes into their complexity I guess. To me, characters should feel real, even if they are fantastical. There should be something real about them. When I go up and talk to someone at a party, it's never as simple as my saying "hi". There are always things going on in my head, reasons I wanted to talk to them, insecurities about having to mingle in the first place, memories about the last time I did something similar and it turned out badly. Just like people, characters should have motivations for what they do, how they feel, how they act, and those are based on everything that's happened to them before they came to the page.

Maybe none of this made since. Really, I'm not sure it even makes sense to me. So, you tell me (and the rest of us since this IS a series), what do you think is at the heart of a complex character? How do you create complex characters yourself? If you're not a writer, what makes a character "complex" when you're reading?

And don't forget to check out the other writers participating in this blog series!!


houndrat said...

I definitely agree--characters should feel "real" even when they've got crazy superpowers or whatever.

Nice post, Laura! :D

Kate Hart said...

"This isn't to say that any of my characters are based on real people. They aren't. I don't know anyone exactly like Fred, Aeron, or Olivia. But I do know people who have certain qualities that each of them hold, myself included."


J.S. Wood said...

Awesome thinking along the same lines as me :) I know when I write what I know then the writing seems more real and flows better. The characters come to life.

Leila Austin said...

Yes! I love it when characters feel real, with complex motivations and a sense of history which goes far beyond the story on the page.

And yeah. My characters do the jumping out thing too :-)

Tahereh said...

ooo great post Laura!! i think it'd take me an entire blog entry to talk about characters, but i totally agree with what you (and Kate) said about how each character is a compilation of traits we've stolen from people in our lives. it's crazy cool how that happens. like the Love Interests in my stories are never based on just one person i know. each one has qualities i've (liked and/or disliked) in several different people i've met (even just briefly). it's so random.
maybe that's why they're so complex? because their characteristics come from multiple personalities?

ahahaha. now i've made my characters sound like lunatics.

time for coffee.

more importantly: i adore you. great work. great post. thanks for sharing!!

Laura McMeeking said...

Tahereh - Yes! I actually didn't realize I was doing this until my BFF read some of the original TD and said, "OMG, Olivia is like the fashionista version of you!" Ha! Then I also realized how much my characters seemed to mimic traits in other people I'd met or seen.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Laura. Most of my characters are compilations of characteristics of different people I've met. I believe it makes them more "real."