Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When creating your characters, do you have a system to organize them, keep their characteristics consistent, make back-stories, etc?

Many authors and writing instructors exhort writers to create long back-stories about their characters. Books and websites offer complex worksheets for this that the aspiring author is supposed to fill out for each character. The templates often include nicknames, favorite sayings, pet peeves, school history, parents names, first pet or job or kiss or . . . well, you get the idea. It goes on and on.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan of this system. Here’s why:

(1) If you spend all the time coming up with this material, you’ll be tempted to use it, and more often than not, this is a mistake. Only include information that’s essential for the reader to know about each character. When you unload background information on readers, you’re making a promise that the information is important somehow. If it’s not, you’ve broken your promise to the them.

(2) I don’t know where my best friend went to high school, or the name of his first girlfriend, or where he lived when he was a kid, or any of those things. But I know what he’s passionate about, what makes him angry, what he is willing to sacrifice his time for. A character with an attitude is much more interesting than a character with a history.

After seven novels and hundreds of characters in my stories, I’ve finally jotted down a few essential facts, quirks, and interests of the central characters, but this has grown out of the stories and is intended to keep dates, ages, etc. consistent.

The system I use is simply reviewing the story from the beginning and keeping in mind the information about the characters as I move the story forward. With most stories this isn’t too difficult, but toward the end if you have several dozen characters, you might want to jot down a few things about each one. I don’t think you need much of a system, just a simple way to keep them straight.

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