This is a great question. I often hear people assert that certain writers shouldn’t ever write certain characters because they themselves can “never understand” what that character has gone through. That is complete and utter bull. The entire job of a storyteller is to get into someone else’s skin and tell their story in a meaningful and compelling way. If the former were true, then all my characters would be hairy, white cartoonists in their 30’s.
I think observing others, whether real or fictitious, IS a good jumping off point. I also think it’s useful to simplify a character, particularly at the start. I always repeat this nugget of wisdom: “A strong character can be described in one or two words that do not reflect their race, gender or occupation”.
So, ok. That’s a good way to start. But what about writing a character you yourself have very little in common with? Here’s what I think…
Each and every one of us has the capacity for every action, emotion, and experience in the spectrum of human behavior, but to varying degrees. You ever see someone completely devastated and inconsolable about the cancelation of a show you’ve barely even heard of? To me, it’s about tapping into the basic action, thought, or motivation of a character within myself, and then dialing up or dialing down the frequency. We all know what it’s like to feel like an outsider, even if it’s something as banal as having not been invited to a birthday party when you were 12. How can that feeling be applied? Tap into those feelings and emotions and bring them to the level that your character is feeling.
Do I know what it’s like to stare down the gullet of a rampaging snowbeast? No. Has a dog ever growled and frightened me in my life? Sure. Have I ever had the shit kicked out of me by people in a different social standing? Not really. Have I ever been in a scuffle that started to go a bit too far or been mocked by others? Of course. All experiences and emotions stem from a single place, but it’s a question of degrees and intensity.
Not only do I think that this is useful in writing characters that you have no frame of reference for (you do), but is also a way to have empathy for real people in real life. We CAN understand, if we take a minute to think about it.
Zack Giallongo has interesting insight about character development!
Ever finished a book? I mean, truly finished one? Cover to cover. Closed the spine with that slow awakening that comes with reentering consciousness?
You take a breath, deep from the bottom of your lungs and sit there. Book in both hands, your head staring down at the cover, back page or wall in front of you.
You’re grateful, thoughtful, pensive. You feel like a piece of you was just gained and lost. You’ve just experienced something deep, something intimate… Full from the experience, the connection, the richness that comes after digesting another soul.
It’s no surprise that readers are better people. Having experienced someone else’s life through abstract eyes, they’ve learned what it’s like to leave their bodies and see the world through other frames of reference. They have access to hundreds of souls, and the collected wisdom of all them.
Beautiful read on why readers are, “scientifically,” the best people to date.
Perhaps Kafka’s timeless contention that books are "the axe for the frozen sea inside us" applies equally to the frozen sea between us.
neil will love this one.
A week ago, I was privileged enough to attend a conference by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. One of the keynote speakers was Judy Schachner, author of many character driven books including “Skippyjon Jones.” She talked about her process of thinking about her characters and coming up with great stories and one of them was very familiar to me and really intriguing.
She creates “Character Bibles” for all of her characters.
For those of you in animation the term “Bible” may seem familiar, it’s a term we use when we’re pitching new ideas or communicating with a crew about what our films are about. For Judy, her bibles focused on just one character and they were incredibly exploratory. She used collage, photography, drawing and notes to develop each character or their stories.
The other reason that this intrigued me was because I had seen another character bible in a similar vein before too.
When I was just starting at Disney Feature Animation, my mentor, Claire Keane, showed me this amazing book she made. It was a sketchbook full to the brim with watercolor drawings, notes and sketches that she created for just one character. That character was Rapunzel, who feels more like a fully fleshed out real person than most animated characters.
According to her blog, Claire kept this journal and kept track of her day and imagined what it would be like if it was Rapunzel living out her day.
Rapunzel, being a bit of an odd duck (how do you get into the head of someone who’s been essentially trapped in one room for 18 years?) was a challenge for a lot of people to understand and Claire’s sketchbook was a great way to communicate and explain what kind of person Rapunzel was and how we could use that for her design as well as her acting.
A lot of great actors use something called ‘Method Acting’ to get into the heads of their characters, and when we see them use these methods we are often rewarded with characters who feel especially real and more than generic.
When we design characters in Entertainment, employing this type of thinking can also be a great way to get into the head of who you are designing. Even if you can’t sit down and create a whole BOOK one one single character, take the time to get to know your person. What would they order at a coffee shop? What kind of places make them comfortable or nervous? These types of details are what make your characters more than drawings and give them a life beyond the page. And hey, if you’ve got the time, why not make a little book about your one character or story? It could be a great fun way to explore and maybe come up with great ideas!!
Images for Judy from Iza Trapani’s Blog
Not really. I mean, if she’s scared of agents, well, they’re a cake walk. They’ll either say no, they don’t want to represent you, or yes, they do. Nice and simple.
After them, you get publishers and editors and copy editors, all with opinions and the ability to buy or reject a book, or to ask for changes. And it gets worse if you do get published, because the reviewers will be waiting, and some of them won’t love every word of the book and will tell the public, and if you think that reviewers are bad, well, the published books are going to head out into the hands of the reading public, and every single one of them will have an opinion and they will tell you on Amazon or on GoodReads just how many stars your book is worth, and even a book that wins the GoodReads award as the fantasy of the year, with 126,600 reviews, is going to have over 2,200 one-star reviews. (That’s only 1.7%, but still, 2,200 people really hated it and many of them will undoubtedly tell you why…)
The best thing to do is write a book you are proud of, and then let it go and let people read it. It’s a good thing that not everyone likes the same thing. That’s what allows different writers to make a living.