Discovering a Personality

As you may have noticed, I’m not much of a blogger. However, I’ve begun writing a new book – mainly as a distraction from losing two WIPs and trying to reconstruct them (long story I don’t want to go into).

For a while, I’ve been toying with the concept of recasting one of the Greek myths as a comedy. One problem I’ve been having, is trying to frame the core personality of the main character. Most of the secondary characters haven’t been a problem, but the MC – stuck. Usually, my stories start with some conceptualization of a set of characters interacting in a scene. Then I continue to flesh the scene out until I feel I have a strong sense of the personalities. Next step is to find them a high-level plot and setting that suits them (I usually have a few of those knocking around in my head). That’s just how it works for me.

But in this case, I’m working from established material. Figuring out the correct set of personality attributes that will fit the MC and make the story compelling (and/or humorous) can be difficult. So, I resorted to a technique I created a long while back. I take the problematic character, or characters if needed, out of the story and plunk them down into a basic setting which is almost all dialog. Example settings are: buying something in a shop, on a date at a restaurant, in a job interview, explaining a work of art to a friend, etc. I then ‘pants’ the conversation as freely as I can, ignoring spelling, grammar, etc.

It usually takes me only a page before I’m able to stop and speculate on personality attributes. If not, I’ll continue the conversation or, if the thread peters out, start a new scenario. The idea is to listen to your character and look for personality flags.

So here’s my real-life example from what I’m working on right now. Let’s just label my MC as P. I’m trying to figure out P as a child for now. Later I may, or may not, need to do the exercise again with him as an adult. At this point, I start with a basic unfinished statement:

P, as a child, is…

Then I launch the script. In this case, I chose “buying something”. Here’s what I typed freely, warts and all (C is the store clerk):

P: How much is this action figure from Giant Robot Battle?
C: 18.99
P: That’s a lot.
C: That’s the price.
P: I mean, it’s not even the main character.
C: They’re all 18.99. Doesn’t matter which.
P: Did you see the movie?
C: Nope. You gonna buy that or not?
P: I’m thinking it over. Let me ask you. Who do you think would win in a fight? This guy, Mechoman, or Godzilla?
C: Godzilla. So, make up your mind yet?
P: I’m trying to. Why Godzilla?
C: Because he’s Godzilla and I don’t know the other guy. 18.99.
P: It’s a big investment.
C: It’s not an investment, it’s a toy.
P: Well for me it is. I mean, I can buy other things that might keep me interested longer. Do you think they’ll make a sequel?
C: To Godzilla?
P: No. To Giant Robot Battle.
C: I wouldn’t know. Here. Kid. Let me help you with this. Do any of your friends have one of these?
P: Nnnnooo.
C: What would they think if they saw you with this? Would they think you were cool?
P: I dunno. It’s a new movie. I hafta wait until they see it.
C: Then you’re ahead of the curve. You can be the trendsetter.

That’s all I needed. I’ve done this before, so I was picking stuff up in the back of my mind regarding his mindset. I then wrote:

Analysis: thoughtful, difficult, prone to over-analyzing, and self-conscious.

Put them together and you have:

P as a child is thoughtful, difficult, prone to over-analyzing, and self-conscious.

Now I have something to work with. I might change or add traits, but I have a foundation. In fact, I may opt to make self-conscious a trait which he will need to come to terms with and/or leverage it for comedy. That’s all part of the fun of writing. Will I continue this WIP? I have no idea. It’s still a fresh thought and I need to see how far it will take me.

New Book(s) in the works…

Okay, probably not the best thing to do, while working on one book a couple of weeks ago, I took a little break and then started on another one. Lately, work (yes, the day job I shouldn’t quit) has been a bit over the top, so I haven’t had as much evening/weekend time free as I usually do. However, that should lighten up soon and I’ll get back to the two.

I’m not overly worried, if trying to write both at the same time becomes too much, I’ll just take the time to jot down as many notes as I can and put one on the back burner (maybe not the best spot to place a book though).

One story line follows a team of psychic investigators, who stumble across a very real and dangerous entity. The difficulty in this one, so far, is crafting the comedy, so I have to step back from it often.

The other story line had been a vague notion floating around in my mind for a number of years. It’s my version of the story of The Garden of Eden, and yes, it takes place in the same ‘universe’ of The Devil and the Wolf.

On both I’m only working through the first chapter right now, doing some dialog exercises to get a better feel for the characters and tinkering with a subplot or two.

So that’s what’s what lately.

A Writing Exercise for Characters

Until very recently, I wrote as a hobby distributing my stories (the ones I was happy with) to my friends. However, when I decided to take on something of novel length, I found myself challenged in a number of ways, but foremost had to do with character interaction.

I would say more than 75% of my story ideas initiate with an imagined, comic, interaction between two or three characters. Once that’s established in my mind, I begin to fill in details about them including their current situation, back story, goals, etc. A general sketch was all I needed for short stories and the situation was sufficient to develop the brief plot line needed.

As I wrote my novel, I found myself occasionally unsatisfied with some of the secondary characters rapport. Given that dialog is my favorite thing to write, I found this especially frustrating. So I decided to take the time and create an exercise to help me get to the core of the personalities and how they mixed.

So here’s what I did:
I took them out of the story and dropped them, as it were, into common settings to see how they would get on. Situations such as, cab driver and passenger(s); complaints desk/customer service call, jury deliberation room, Christmas party, anything that would pop into my mind. Off to the side, as a guide, I kept a brief list of character features under each name.

I then just started writing the loose dialog that might occur for any of those situations. Not a lot was necessary. I also didn’t have to care much about identifying who was talking, I knew that. But I did pay attention to possible body language (very important). I just kept it going for maybe a page or so, switched to another scenario and repeated. Some were easy, some weren’t – the difficult ones, I stopped so as not to waste time. The easier ones were usually revealing enough.

This helped me get a firmer footing to develop better dialog within the story. I hope it works for you, if you find yourself in a similar situation.
-R