Sunday, October 03, 2010

Character Lists -- a confession

I hate character lists. I particularly hate the identikit character lists that I find in writing books. I know it is sacrilege to say it but I do. And I don't actually think they help me write the story. In some ways they hem me in. They force me to make decisions BEFORE I am ready to and decisions about things I am not interested in or my characters might not be interested in. Things that I might feel compelled to work in.  Equally if I don't know the characters well enough I might make hasty decisions which make me freeze later. The needs of the story and the characters interacting with each other come before the needs of The List.
I do know for other people that they work well for. That is their process and I salute them.
They just don't work for me. Neither do I do collages. My mind works differently and the pictures are in my head. And this possibly makes me a Bad Writer.
Or maybe it just makes me different. Different is good. I can live with different.

I don't need to know the same info about every character every time. Each character is different. And some of my characters hate, loathe and distest admin. Some of them would happily set fire to all bureaucracy.

 I worry that filling in these sheets can make it seem like I have told the story or that my words harden like concrete or rather my decisions harden like concrete and I have to twist the story to a point of implausibility when the simplest thing would be to change the back story. This is borne out in my own research of trial and error.

This however does not mean that I don't know things about my characters. I can and have written reams of paper about their back story. And sometimes that back story has to change. Sometimes I add Too Much baggage and sometimes too little.  Sometimes what I thought was important becomes less so.
But I do know. And I do like the freedom to feel I can change things.

If my characters are never going to eat ice cream, is it important that I fill that out or that I think about the sort of shampoo they might use before thinking about their quality of laughter?  Does the exact place where they were born matter? Or is it more their upbringing? Parental neglect comes in all shapes and sizes and is not necessarily evident at the cradle stage. In other words, my mind works differently. And that is fine.

At the end of the day, it is MY story and I need to be able to write and give it the depth of characterisation that it needs. One size doesn't fit all and one list or series of lists or a series of interview questions doesn't fit all either. I freeze. It fills too much like I have been here before rather than concentrating on the why I am writing the story. So I rely on scribbled notes and a lot of thinking. I like to feel that I know the characters and they are friends. The first and most important thing for me is to love my characters, including all their faults, flaws and foibles.
Protagonists for me are often not 3-d on the first draft. It takes time to fill in the broad outline and certain symbols and important details only emerge at the end. What is important is that by the time the READER reads it, that fine shading of detail that makes the character come alive is on the page and not in my head.

Earlier this week, my editor who is indeed lovely asked for character lists for my hero and heroine. We had a discussion as I refuse to fill them out before I finish the story. What she was really asking for was a detailed background note on the characters and to include the emotional turning points in the synopsis. I can do a detailed background note. I did have scraps written down and a lot in my head. As long as it was in no particular order, I was fine and I did learn things about my characters.  But it was putting things done in an order and an form to suit me rather than to suit someone else's process.  Starting with a few scribbled notes, I produced a 2500 word background note that is really helping me write this thing and that showed my editor I do know where I am going.  The note took me several hours to write as it was mainly pulling bits of the background together and my husband decided to light a bonfire and needed some assistance in the middle of the thing. I stomped around and went back and wrote. Then sent it.
It could have been expanded further if needs be. She said it was fine as it was as it gave her the info to know that the conflict was sustainable. It is up to me to write the thing.

I can do detailed background notes, just don't ask me to do character lists.  I prefer to write stories about my characters and stories about their backgrounds. It works for me.

Know your process and don't sweat the small stuff.
Just because other authors do it one way, it doesn't mean it is the right way for you.
Try things, see if they work as you will know straight away.
Allow your process to evolve.
There is nothing wrong with writing a discovery draft (or two).


Julie Cohen said...

I used to do character lists, not so much for the inconsequential stuff like what their favourite colour was, but more to pinpoint their inner conflict and worst fear. I tend to find that once you've got that, all the other details (like favourite ice cream) tend to slot in quite easily if you need them.

When I was writing shorter books very quickly, it helped to do them as often they gave me the key symbols of the book as well—settings, important objects, etc—and I could just get on and write.

These days, like you, I never do them before starting; I have more time to do a discovery draft and let these things evolve organically. I'm also better at pinpointing inner conflict by myself, right away.

But I do still use them sometimes when I feel I'm stuck or bogged down, in the middle of the book, as a way to get back to the basics and refresh my thinking.

Thanks for this post; I like hearing about how others work and how their process changes.

Michelle Styles said...

I was always in awe of you being able to figure out key symbols etc BEFORE you wrote the draft.
It never worked for me. I need to write the thing and then discover what is important to them and why precisely that detail is important. Otherwise, it always feels like it is someone else's symbol etc.
And I will blog about inner conflict and fear. Even when I think I have it nailed, it gets changed. Vis a vis His Stand In Bride. I thought one thing and the editor pointed out that in fact it was something v different and didn't I want to thread it through? She was right of course.
It seems I have to know the end to figure these things out. Even on something as short as 10 k.

Caroline said...

Hi Michelle - great post. I'm *so* glad I'm not the only one who hates doing character lists. Like any newbie who's read books on the "craft" I felt I *had* to do them (and those collage boards as well). So I did. And guess what? When it actually came to writing the story I never refer to then at all! Everything is in my head. Which is nice of course, but I suppose if I ever do get published and an editor wants to know everything about my story then I would have to do them. However I much prefer to do what you suggest a small bio / synopsis of the story with all the key Arcs etc. and send that off.

And I may be in the minority here - but I actually don't mind doing a synopsis - as it makes me focus on the main story and key points.

Have a lovely Sunday. Caroline x

Nell Dixon said...

I can't do the list type things either - for me the conflicts come from the psychological make-up of my characters and the external events that have hardened those charater traits or bought them to the fore. I don't 'see' my characters either, I hear them and feel them but I never really see them and I don't have to. My character lists are more memos to remind myself that I'd said X has brown hair and eyes - so very short and boring to anyone else as they are purely to save me from flipping back through to discover I'd changed an eye colour.

Becky Black said...

Some of my favourite of my characters have started out as nothing but a name and a job in the story and stole every scene they were in, had their own voice and attitude right off the bat and by the end I still didn't know what they wore in bed, or how many siblings they had, but they were a living person! :D

Other times I've known a load about someone before I start and they end us as interesting as dough and get cut out!

So I've ended up sort of partway through the middle with planning characters. I like to think about the nig things for them, like upbringing, family, inner torments etc, but leave the smaller details to come through as I write - which is when the character lists can then become useful! I fill them in when I decide on some fact that I might accidentally forget or contradict later, or need to try to look up. I know it's somewhere in the last 65,000 words... :D

So they can be useful to gather facts together in one handy reference after the character has told me during the story "My grandad was hanged for sheep rustling" or "I have a secret daughter" or something else I never gave them before the story.

What I find more useful is finding things like personality tests, or social and political attitude tests online and taking them - in character. (I don't do it if the responses are going to be part of some actual study! My crazy character might throw off their results!)

Even if I can't answer everything yet it certainly makes me think about the characters and even gives me plot ideas.

Nicole said...

It is comforting to know a published author feels this way, because I hate doing any kind of character list/bio/description. I'd rather their story speak for them. I used to do them when I first started writing, but found I was always changing things as I wrote.

But, of course, every writer has to work the way that fits them best.

Thanks for sharing your perspective!

Phillipa said...

Oh Michelle, I love you to bits for saying this!

I hate character sheets too and find them sterile, manipulative and unhelpful - they seem to take me out of the book when all I really want to do is get deep inside it. I have never dared say I actively dislike them because I've always assumed that most writers do and it's only sloppy old incompetent me that doesn't.

OTOH I've 'sort of 'done them *after* I've finished a first draft - or rather, I've written a detailed critique of the book, an 'essay' that's helped me to clarify the various traits and conflicts going on.

Writing a character sheet beforehand reinforces the artifice to me - it reminds me I'm writing a book and that I'm omnipotent - when I really need to let the characters tell their story.

In fact I find all sorts of writing guides, plans, charts etc scary - they just don't help me beforehand, or even going along, and turn the joy of writing, the wondreful process of discovery into an academic exercise. I've ben there done that for my degree and I don't want it to be part of my own writing. I'm worried it will remove all the spontanaeity and warmth.

BUT every writer is different and whatever works for you, I say use it.

Or don't!

Donna Alward said...

I'm going to be in the minority because I love my character list. Here's why:

I fill out the list and it really isn't the be all and end all BUT it often serves as a stepping stone to me realizing something else very important to the character. It makes me think, in short. They are not written in stone. Once I fill them out, I do not go back to them again. EVER. Once I went back and was shocked at how much changed during the writing of the story, when I "REALLY" got to know my characters.

But as a jumping off point, I do like them. And when I write my answers, it must be a full answer. "Favourite food" might be steak and eggs, but I want to know why. Is it tied to memory? Upbringing? The problem, I think, is when you use a list but don't give things context.

I'm a big fan of the discovery draft. It presents problems when people (read: editors etc.) want to know things up front, because *I* don't know yet. But it is my process. I always discover little gems of wonderfulness as I go through, and then can go back and revise and layer them in.

Michelle Styles said...

I am pleased that it struck a chord with some people!

The whole point is that it is all about YOUR process or in this case MINE.

And I did know Donna about your devotion to character lists. If it works fine. There is nothing wrong with that. It simply doesn't have to work for everyone or indeed every book.

Right back to this ms.

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Sophia Harrop said...

Thanks Michelle, this is a really useful post. I've never liked those character list things either as many of the details on them seem irrelevant or overkill.

This week while working on the characters of my WIP, I made my own list, which was very broad and served as a prompt for me to do a few paragraphs of background writing on each. My headings were: Appearance, Personality traits, Main Life Events, Life Dilemmas, Emotional Background, Her feelings towards Him / His feelings towards Her. It seems to have worked, touch wood!