Your Characters: Your Babies by Catharine Bramkamp
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist Catharine Bramkamp as she shares with us “ Your Characters: Your Babies.” Enjoy!
Ask me about a favorite book – and I’ll describe the heroine.
We often, if pressed, remember key points of a plot, but what really stick in our heads are the characters. We remember the who over the how, before the what.
Do we love Jane Austen’s books because of the intricate plots? Not really.
The story? Please, we know the story. What we love are the characters, the strong women who get into trouble because they blurt out what they are thinking, the handsome hero who is just misunderstood, the spunky friend for whom we wish as much happiness as we wish for the heroine. We may not relate to the plot, but we certainly identify with a well-developed character.
Listen to what you say when you play a movie for the fifth time, it’s not about the plot or the story — you just want to see the hero or heroine again. “I love him.” You murmur under your breath.
Character is why there is star power in Hollywood. Do we watch Brad Pitt because he has a reputation for starring in great plot-driven ﬁlms? No, we do not. Some people, who will remain nameless, would be happy watching Mr. Pitt sell laundry soap. It’s about character, charm, personality — if that sounds like a beauty pageant, you are not too far off.
Create a great character, Sherlock Holmes, Ulysses, Beowulf, Emma, Chewbacca, Bridget Jones and half the novel, the very important part of the novel, is done. Now that you have the great character all that is left is to give him or her something to chase/slay/find.
“First, ﬁnd out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.” ~Ray Bradbury
There are books and books and web sites and web sites and classes and classes on how to create great characters. There is information on how to describe them, make an astrological chart for them, and write up their back- ground. You can create notes on why or how your character will behave in a certain way given a certain situation. You can add to the time line of the character’s childhood. You can know everything about your character: favorite color, childhood trauma; when the parent’s immigrated; the name of their favorite pet now long dead…
All of this work can be excellent exercises, and valuable as you ﬂex your writing muscles; however, most writers will confess that their characters, the good characters, are not so easily controlled. What many of us have discovered: as soon as you think you know everything about your character and as soon as you sit down and think, well today my character will drive to the store, ﬁght a dragon, and fall in love with the prince — they suddenly will not cooperate.
Like children, ﬁctional characters are strangely resistant to The Plan. You remember the week after your precious bundles of joy showed up? You created the ultimate calendar of success based on the 98 books on child rearing you read during the last nine months. You tracked to the hour developmental benchmarks. You wavered between placing the child in the advanced Yellow Tiger class or holding him back for another six months as a Blue Bear.
You delivered multiple children to multiple lessons: piano, trumpet, bongo. You spent months of your life driving to band, ballet, tumbling practices. You spent hours cheering from the side lines during little league, soccer, la cross. And what happened? At twenty, your precious bundle announced he wants to be a chicken farmer, an option markedly absent from the Goals List (subtitled Acceptable Careers Mom Thinks You Should Pursue) you created for him on his second birthday.
Fictional characters will do much the same thing. Characters in your story or novel will just blurt out comments; pursue the villain down unmarked streets and race so quickly away from your expectations that you have no choice but to just hold on for the ride.
If your character, like a troublesome child, has run off the rails, what can you do? Follow them. Take notes along the way. As traits and details about your characters emerge, just keep track. Create a running reference list chronicling his coffee preference, her favorite drink, what she hates, what he’s afraid of. Remember to note eye color or if she starts flipping back her hair.
These notes will help with consistency as well as keeping your hero and heroine on track, not your track of course, but theirs. The picture will emerge. Write it down as your character comes into focus.
Someone needs to farm those chickens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catharine Bramkamp is the co-producer of Newbie Writers Podcast that focuses on newer writers and their concerns. She is a successful writing coach, Chief Storytelling Officer, and author of a dozen books including the Real Estate Diva Mysteries series, and The Future Girls series. She holds two degrees in English, and is an adjunct university professor. After fracturing her wrist, she has figured out there is very little she is able to do with one hand tied behind her back.