Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Character Mapping for Juicy Characters

When you think of any great novel, what you usually remember is the characters. When they're done well, a powerful character will stay with the reader, as if they were a real person, and their story will be a story that resonates as universal -- one that readers identify with. Great fiction is almost always driven by the protagonists, and how they cope with the situations that they encounter through the plot. Every author needs to know how to create good characters. Great characters need to be real, engaging, and motivating; they need to keep the reader reading. They need to touch something in the reader; so that they are remembered.

So what, exactly, is characterisation? Put simply, characterisation is about peopling your story and fleshing out those people. Or better still, characterisation is about driving a story thorugh the response and development of your characters. By showing the reader your character in-situ, having conversations, responding to their environment and the changes they go through, and through other character's responses to them, the reader begins to visualise and understand them.

The term characterisation was introduced in 1894 as a literary term meaning a "description of essential features." Novelists like George Eliot, Flaubert and Balzac, and William Dean Howells were all writers who wrote stories where the plot was grown out character development: where character transitions or arcs were the focal point of the story. There are a range of methods that writers use to bring their characters to life. Some of these are as simple as giving them a relevant name, describing your characters, and having them perform in situations, in effect, illuminating your characters' outer life. Other techniques are much more subtle and complex and involve revealing, through action, reflection, psychology and impression, your characters' inner life.

Although whole books can, and have been written on this topic, creating a character map is a really good way to creating more juicy, interesting characters and thereby improving your stories:

If you're a visual person, why not cut out magazine pictures and paste them onto an A3 sheet, with a few details about each of your key characters. This might include not only what they look like, the clothing they wear, how they hold themselves, and the sorts of accessories or accoutrements they might gather around themselves. The resulting map could end up being quite a good visual cue for you to work with as your story develops. If you choose famous actors and actresses, you'll have a head start on the casting call for the movie which results from your book.

If you're not a visual person, then there are other good tools, including Excel, Mind Map, or just MS Word. I particularly like Mind Map (there are many open source mapping tools out there including:

The Brain: http://www.thebrain.com/c/personalbrain/?c=32, and
Free Mind: http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

Whichever tool you use, you'll want to begin by creating a summary box or heading for each of your key protagonists, antagonists and the more prominent minor characters. Then under each of those headings, describe them, including things like what they look like, age, sex, hair, eye colour, scent, names and nicknames, politics, personality, etc.

After that you can go deeper into the internal life of your characters and the world they inhabit, teasing out their wants, needs and desires, intelligences, flaws, beliefs, motivations, history, etc, and how tht maps to the key points in your story - the character arc.

Whether you use tools, or just define your character with pen and paper, a thorough understanding of the characters and their journey in your story is the key to good fiction.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the  novels novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Asssessment, and in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a number of poetry books including the recently released Sublime Planet.  Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com.  



14 comments:

  1. Great thoughts. I love it when a character stays with me long after the book is complete. It's like finding a new friend.

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    1. D. Jean, I find that I can't really get into a book, no matter how good the plot, unless the characters are powerful and stay with me.

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  2. Maggie, I have a couple of Pinterest boards for this. I started them when I started the third rewrite of "Broken Bonds," a science fiction novel due out this July. It's been incredibly helpful. I started with clothing for one of my characters. Then I started another board with pictures of actors I wanted to cast for the four main roles.

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    1. Excellent idea, Margaret. This way you're promoting and working on the novel all at the same time - love it.

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  3. Magdalena, you and I tend to fly on the same beam. My recent newsletter had some articles on letting Pinterest work for us visually. One is coming up in the next issue, too. It's a guest feature by our WOTM friend Margaret Fieland. Authors can subscribe or read the new issue (or the last one) in pdf at http://howtodoitfrugally.com/newsletter_copies.htm

    And, yes, of course I'll Tweet etc. My author friends will want to see this!

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    1. I loved that Pinterest article Carolyn - it was very helpful. Yes, we do fly on the same beam!

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  4. I like the idea of pasting pictures of your characters on your walls. It works for me. Soon enough, you'll know them better than your own family. Talk to them. With luck, they'll start talking back to you. Just listen... and you'll have a story!

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    1. That's so true John. I was having a lengthy conversation with my son yesterday about some characters in a book that I've been reading on his recommendation and my husband asked us if we talk at such great length about 'real people'. Last night 3 of the POV characters in the book I've been reading died in one fell swoop - and it was very hard for me to sleep after that.

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  5. Maggie, your post will be a huge help as I get to know the characters better in my mystery for 7-9 year olds. Thanks!

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  6. Great tips Maggie. Using Pinterest, as Margaret does, is an excellent way to create and flesh out your characters. As you mention, it serves two purposes.

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  7. I like free mind. I think it's an great mapping tool.

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  8. This is great Maggie. Now I have more information to put with all the tidbits I've collected about building characters. Now to get those character into my novels. A whole other topic I know.

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  9. Lots of information, good ideas and links, as always Maggie. I do have pictures on the cork board but think I need more mind mapping. shall try it out.

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  10. Super post, Maggie. Thanks. I have done two novels with my characters stuck to the wall next to me. It works well.

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