Advice: on characters

PhotobucketWhen Therese told me we’re having an “advice” month here on Writer Unboxed, I was pleased. Not because my advice is so stellar, but because themes make it easier for me to choose a post topic. Our lovely co-founder expressed curiosity as to how I can get to know my characters so quickly, enough to write their emotional states in conjunction with my How to Draft a Book in 6 Weeks master plan. But before I go into that, I’d like to relate an anecdote first. (It’s pertinent, I promise.) Let me set the scene for you.

In 2007, I signed with a new agent and made my first sale to New York. Though I’d been writing for years, I was still relatively new to the publishing end of things. My friend (and now writing partner) Carrie Lofty and I psyched each other up to attend RWA nationals; it was our first professional conference. Since then, I’ve sold 18 books (3 of those in collaboration with Carrie), two short stories and a novella. It’s been quite a ride.

Dallas, Texas. July 2007
I turn up on Dallas, knowing I’m going to meet my agent for the first time. I’m meeting Carrie for the first time as well; prior, we’ve been online friends. Nerves overwhelm me at the crowds. Everyone seems to know each other; I feel like a poser. What the heck am I doing here? Before my dinner with my agent, I go up to my room and sit on the bathroom floor with my head between my knees. I am terrified. I’m convinced I’m going to make a bad impression on everyone, and why, oh why, did I ever let myself get talked into this? I don’t know how I write a book. I spent a summer working on Grimspace (the one that sold) and I am none too convinced I can repeat the process. It was probably a fluke–me writing something that sells. Is there a writing equivalent of the one-hit-wonder? Here I am!

Somehow I pull myself together. I have a nice dinner with my agent. Nothing disastrous happens. I begin to enjoy that conference. And then… I attend a Q&A with Nora Roberts. I am too starstruck to ask a question, but I am sitting there, vibrating with excitement nonetheless. Someone asks about her process.

This is where the light comes on.

She says, in essence, that she starts with an idea, and the first draft is the “discovery” draft, where she learns her characters. Much fixing comes later; the point is learning who they are.
Well, that’s what I do. I didn’t know it was a called a “discovery” draft. I have learned so much in the three years since that first terrifying conference. I’ve now perfected what works for me, so I can repeat it.

Which brings me back to Therese’s original question. How do you get to know your characters in six weeks? Well, I open myself up to them. I listen as I write, and if I can’t get them to tell me what they’d do in any given situation, I make it up. I guess. It’s not a perfect solution, and you know, sometimes later, after I’ve gotten to know them, something I wrote just doesn’t work because the hero wouldn’t do that or say such a thing. The answer is simple: revision. I used to think revision meant I got it wrong and I stink. Now I know better.

My “discovery” drafts are not awesome, but I polish them. I make the words shine in the second and third passes. My books are character-driven, so it’s paramount I get it right. To that end, building a house works as an analogy for how I write. First, I lay the foundation, then the frame goes up. (Dialogue, light narrative, basic blocking.) Once I have a sound structure (first draft), I go back through and add the wiring. (More narrative, blocking becomes sophisticated.) I add insulation and drywall (refine plot points and double-check for consistency / cause and effect.) Finally, I paint and decorate (more description, the lyrical and poetic bits people like.) I suppose I don’t know my characters in and out at the end of six weeks, but by the time I am done with all the revision, I do. I can add that emotional veracity from spending all that time in their heads. Finally, the best piece of advice I can give you? Commit to your characters. Feel what they feel. You can’t write about their suffering with the proper intensity if their situation doesn’t make you want to weep, too. If you’re not moved by them, who will be?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s stevendepolo


About Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is a bestselling, multi-published author with a degree in English Literature. She is a prolific writer, with nine releases planned for 2011 alone. She writes romantic science fiction and urban fantasy under her own name. As Ava Gray, she writes high-octane romances. She also writes "hot paranormal apocalyptic action" with fellow author Carrie Lofty under the pseudonymn Ellen Connor. Follow her on Twitter.