Friday, August 23, 2013

Questioning the Characters

Where are you from?

How many times have you been asked that?  Every time two people meet, it’s a standard question.  When meeting someone, we want to know where they’re coming from, where they were before.

But after answering that question, how many of you are asked this:

Where did you come from before that?

This question is incredibly familiar to me.  I’m from Colorado, but I don’t look it.  Even after telling them where I was born, I get asked where I’m from before that.

Or I get a puzzled look, and “But where are you FROM?” as though I didn’t understand the question.
Of course, I understand why.  I have Japanese ancestry that makes people assume I’m oriental.  But that’s not the culture I most identify with.  I was raised in Colorado.  I even associate more with the Hispanic culture than the Japanese one.

Dressed up in a family performance of Mulan

But again and again, I’m asked the same question.

And when that happened again this week, I began to think about what this question could really mean.
Do we as writers ask our characters where they’re from?  I’ve heard advice to “interview” our characters, asking them what their likes and dislikes are.  I’ve read some amazing interview questions where the character is probed – even down to their favorite ice cream flavor.

I think we can learn everything about our characters by asking this one simple – but very loaded – question.
If I know where a character comes from, I would know the experiences that molded and changed them.  I would know who, what and where is most important in their lives.  I would know exactly how they would react in any situation, because I know their personality and how they’ve acted in the past.  I’d understand their driving force.

Right now, I’m struggling with one of my MC’s because she’s starting to feel like a piece of cardboard.  I have a fantastic beta going through the WIP currently, but I know that my real work will be in finding out who she is by learning where she is from.  In order to do that I’m writing character sketches of her life – interactions with family members and outsiders.  In the numerous drafts I’d written of this WIP since high school, it never occurred to me to investigate this character further.  As I explore her childhood, learn how she was raised and how she interacted with her brother and cousin (2 more main characters), I learn more about where I went wrong.

What about you?  How do you learn more about your characters?  Do you use interviews?  Character sketches?  What advice do you have for creating rounded characters?