Question of the Week:

5 Mar

This Question of the Week comes from Samantha, who asks: “How do you know when your character has gone way off normal behaviour? How exactly do you know what your character would do or say? I mean, they may be your character but therein lies the whole problem if I can make her say or do anything.”

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That’s a tough one, because one of my favorite parts of writing fiction is getting so into a story that sometimes things fly out of my characters’ mouths and I have no idea where those thoughts came from. But how do you know when they take it too far?  I guess it comes from knowing your characters better than they know themselves.  You’re their creator.  You brought them into being – even if you’ve borrowed historical personages or someone else’s creations.  They have to be real to you, so you know how they think and what drives them.  If you’ve done your homework and have that kind of relationship with your characters, then sometimes when they take your story off course from the way you plotted it, they’re actually improving it!  That’s why I say it’s fun for me when they take on a mind of their own.  At the very least, knowing your characters makes it easier to see when they’ve crossed the line.

The Writer Who Just Got An Agent!

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Critiques. Honestly. Sometimes the best way to know if your character is acting off is to see what other people think about him/her. You have a whole person built up on your head, but the reader only sees what made it on paper. Have a person or three read your workand provide feedback. Learn to revise and create consistent, dynamic characters. Mine are terrible in the first draft, but a good reviser is a good author. 🙂

~The Writer Who Just Became a Literary Agent!

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Critiques as well. Generally I find that my characters end up loopy when I’m not feeling inspired. If I get someone to read it over their input can help me pinpoint what it is about them that’s weird.

In terms of trying to make them sound real, I’ve noticed that I almost always subconsciously base characters on people I know. But, I’ve also noticed that I never base them on people that I know well; just the ones I’ve met a couple of times, or that I had only first impressions of. It gives me a good base and a lot of free reign, because then I can elaborate on their depth however I want.

-The Writer Revising Her First Novel

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I think that there are three types of characters: Characters you know immediately, characters you get to know after working with them for a bit, and characters you never understand (They need to be changed or cut completely). For characters you know immediately, you know them like you know your best friend; you know what they like and generally what they’d do in a given situation. From there the flow of dialogue and action takes over. Yes, you can technically make them do anything you want, but the truth of it is that they wouldn’t do just anything.

For the second type of character; characters you know only after working with them for a little while, in the beginning you have more leeway because you don’t know definitively if they would really do or say something. However, you should be careful, because sometimes characters mold to what they were doing or saying in the beginning. But, then again, sometimes you get halfway through your story and go back to read the beginning and realize that your character would NEVER act that way.

Again, if you’re questioning if your character has ‘gone way off normal behavior’, think of them like a friend. Ask yourself, ‘would they really do or say that? What do they want at this moment?’ I think that will be immensely helpful to you.

The Writer Waiting to Hear Back From Her Agent About Another Project

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Definitely critiques. Having a objective opinion is invaluable.

But most of the time, I make sure I know my characters well enough before I begin writing that I can FEEL when they’ve gone off track. Part of the fun of writing books is discovering things about your characters, but it’s also wise to have a solid idea of what their history and behavior/personality is like prior to beginning your story.
Maybe think of it as an iceberg: when your characters are in a scene, they act in one way that’s relevant to the immediate plot/action…but beneath the surface should be an ENORMOUS mass of history that guides their actions. That’s why knowing as much about your characters as possible before beginning is so important. Even if your characters are drinking tea and eating crumpets, the way your heroine grips the teacup at a certain moment can reflect her anger at a childhood memory.
I’m not saying plan out every little detail of their past, but you should try to come up with key events in their histories that occurred BEFORE the events of your novel. It really helps in that feeling of knowing that you’ve gone off-track.
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The more you write, the more you know your character. I think that when you first start writing a story, your characters aren’t fully defined yet; you’ll be unsure of where you want them to go, or they’ll do something totally unexpected and your story will veer off in another direction than what you had originally planned. But as you write, your characters become clearer and clearer. However, the person who is most likely to see if a character has gone OOC (out of character) is another reader. A fresh pair of eyes will notice if something is glaringly wrong. As long as something is plausible, then a character can change: they can grow, make mistakes, even act out of whack sometimes – so long as your reader can still understand what prompted your character to act differently.

The Writer Writing Her First Book

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Well, audience, how do YOU know when your character isn’t themselves?

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8 Responses to “Question of the Week:”

  1. junebugger March 5, 2010 at 9:36 AM #

    Definately critiques. Otherwise I have no idea.

    But sometimes I feel uncomfortable with a certain chapter where a character acts out of turn. Still. I usually don’t change it much until someone tells me exactly WHAT needs changing

  2. prisicillashay March 5, 2010 at 12:00 PM #

    definitely critiques! lol.

    I can’t count how many times I was stuck….said a random sentence and my friends (including June) were like “he wouldn’t say that” or “She wouldn’t do that..I don’t know it seems out of character”

    Its always fun when those around you have come to know your characters as well as or better than you.

    My main problem is ending a story without going OOC. Everyone wants a happy ending…but the ending can’t be too mushy if your character is stoic to everyone else or it can’t be too serious and lack feeling…

    Makes you a little crazy 🙂

  3. gabydasilva March 5, 2010 at 12:18 PM #

    I find that sometimes “OOC-ness” can be what truly breathes life into the character, as long as its well treated.
    A character that sticks too much to his/her character will come out flat, as real humans get “OOC” many times. Like say, my anger is OOC in me – I never get angry! But when I do, OH boy get outta the way.

    What helps me is to write down every character’s characteristics (hah redundancy) and check it whenever I’m in doubt. If I wrote that this character is “Lighthearted and optimistic”, I know she’ll answer to a bad situation better than one I described as “Moody, tend to ire.” The first will find the bright side of life, the second will become mute and then react violently at the slightest provocation.

    However, things get way more interesting when you can actually force the “lighthearted an optimistic” to get absolutely angry. As his/her creator, only you know his/her limit and which buttons to push to reach it. And when this nice girl loses it and starts kicking and biting… it will be OOC for a moment, but it will be believable and will endear the character to your reading even more.

  4. Rowenna March 5, 2010 at 4:25 PM #

    Critiques or being 100% critical with myself. Sometimes it’s too easy to make a character behave in one way or another to make the plot work properly–but it comes off as fake character and fake plotting.

  5. Praya March 5, 2010 at 5:46 PM #

    Good question! I agree- I guess the best way to find out is through critiques, really pulling apart your characters and leaving them bleeding on the dissection table. (And then putting them back together, because let’s not condone murder.;))

    I also agree with what gaby said- having a list of characteristics to go by, like a map. It ties in with what June posted about earlier- investing the time in really getting a feel for your characters, so that you know when they’re OOC. For my second novel (wow it really feels wanky calling it a novel, let alone my second one- but I’m just going to roll with it) a couple of chapters into my fifth attempt, I still felt like I was floundering so I found it really helpful just to go back and make a list of my main characters’ driving traits, like I was doing an English project on them or something. Inconsistencies become glaringly obvious then.

    About what Savannah said- some characters being instant best friends, others you have to work on- SO TRUE! I feel the first happens when a character plops into your thoughts and you feel compelled to write their story. The second happens when you have this awesome idea, this awesome canvas of a masterpiece, and you need the right characters to fill it in.

  6. Samantha W March 5, 2010 at 7:43 PM #

    In the end, the character is your character, dont forget that. If you created them, then usually you’ll know if they are acting OOC. If you do happen to stumble into making your character OOC, you will probably catch this change relatively quickly. It just wont feel right, you know? And as always, having the perspectives of others always helps. 🙂

  7. Victoria Dixon March 6, 2010 at 10:59 AM #

    If I’ve pushed it this far, the story won’t progress. At least, not that character’s part of the story. They get sullen and refuse to talk or do anything because of misrepresentation. LOL

  8. Samantha C March 7, 2010 at 4:09 AM #

    Thanks for all the answers, it really helped in some respects.

    Some, because while I get that critiques are so important, I also have a problem with that because my sphere is bubbled with so few writers. Honestly, I don’t know anyone else at school/home/tuition who write. Sure, plenty read but I kind of scared of giving them manuscripts because, a) they’re either good friends or relatives and b) I am SCARED.

    When I go, oh, I’m writing something, they go, ‘Oh, okay.”

    I know I sound whiney but that’s the gospel truth.

    Then I feel guilty for my characters because I KNOW what they are in my head but I can’t seem to convey any of their real personality on paper.

    Anyway, thanks again 🙂

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