Write on Wednesday-Character Study

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a psychologist ~ believe it or not, my first major at the University of Michigan was psychology. Seems strange for a girl who grew up playing the piano and writing stories, doesn’t it? I think this compulsion sprang from my fascination with people – why they act (and react) the way they do, how their emotions effect their behavior. This same fascination is why I love literature so much – where else can you meet so many fascinating and complex characters?

I recently read an article by Gail Godwin (an author whose characters I greatly admire), who has this to say about “Creating Characters With Depth” (The Writer, June 2007):

“Use yourself. Go deeply into your own feelings and look for the hidden truths, motives, and perspectives. For we all have more in common than you think.”

Godwin relates that she was once working on a story with a character who had recently become widowed. Trying to convey a sense of what this woman was feeling, without being trite, Godwin reflected on the way she herself felt when she was alone. She realized that she always felt a need to leave a light burning at night. So by having her character compelled to leave a light on, she was able to convey a sense of vulnerability without being maudlin.

“Observe others, observe yourself,” Godwin advises. “Practice putting gestures, habits, facial expressions into words.” My son was once quite interested in animation, and took some classes at the Disney animation studios. The artists talked about the way they imitated their characters antics in the mirror, and then drew what they saw. As writers, we can do the same thing with our characters – observe ourselves not only physically, but emotionally, to gain insight into the way people might react in a given situation. Godwin assures us that “you have enough self knowledge to take an imaginative leap from what you don’t understand about a character you’re trying to create to what you do understand about yourself.”

Creating characters gives the writer a chance to play God – to take bits and pieces from ourselves, from people we know, and put them together to create a unique individual. It takes lots of practice to be precise and compelling enough with words to get a person “down on paper” well enough so that he can “walk off the page” and into the reader’s imagination. As writers we have to be able to “reproduce with clarity” the looks, gestures, objects, and environments of people, because these are the things that make them who they are. “You have the power of observation and compassion necessary to penetrate to the depths of people and realize they are just as complicated as you are,” Godwin assures us. “The really great writer is on everybody’s side,” having empathy and understanding of their emotional needs and motivations.

Since my career in psychology didn’t quite pan out, I’ll have to be content with studying human nature with an eye to creating complex and entertaining characters. And isn’t that what makes reading, writing – and life itself!- so fascinating?

So how about you? Who are some of your favorite fictional characters? If you write fiction, how do you create believable and interesting characters?

More of what I’m learning about character development can be found at Moving Write Along – A Matter of Character, Part, I, II, and III

By the way – I could have written a really good description of myself having a complete meltdown about 30 minutes ago after I finished the first draft of this post (complete with links) and Blogger somehow mysteriously ate it! So much for the “automatically saves your draft” feature.


10 thoughts on “Write on Wednesday-Character Study

  1. Great essay, Becca! I love to people watch, often going to a mall or if I have a flight to catch will go early just to sit and watch the wonderful characters passing by and my own reaction to them. Also, listening to bits and pieces of conversation when you are out there is fascinating and i think would be helpful in character development as well.

  2. How cool that B took classes at Disney. I don’t always watch the “making of” extras on DVDs, but on the animated features I love to watch how they film the actors recording their lines and then use their facial expressions and mannerisms to craft the characters on film.

    I really like the example you gave of leaving the light on. When I try to flesh out a character, I’m often guilty of saying too much rather than choosing wisely.

  3. I study people but I have no interest in creating new ones. When I write, I’m more of a reporter than a fiction writer so I’m picking up details to be more accurate than creative. I’m a very literal soul when you get down to it.

  4. Funny… When I left school, I wanted to be a psychologist or an English teacher, but that didn’t work out. I got to study administration, and my first career was in accounting. My second career was mothering, and now… my 3rd career involves facilitating creative writing groups sometimes (I can loosely interpret that as teaching English), and at last, I have my degree in psychology (it only took 30 years to get it), and am working with people. Strange the paths we end up taking.

    I write very little fiction, but I think what you say about using what you might do yourself is key to making “real” characters. I think it’s probably why the characters I have tried to write don’t seem real. Lots for me to think about.

  5. Lovely piece, Becca. I couldn’t possibly name one favourite fictional character – there are hundreds that have crossed my path over the years. The key is both writing and art – besides persistence – is keen observation.

  6. I never thought about how much psychology can play a part in developing characters. People watching at a park, mall or airport would really give you great quirks.


    I loved your photo & haiku below. They looked so happy!

  7. I don’t write fiction but this was an excellent post Becca. Even writing literary or narrative journalis requires paying attention to the details. And I’ve always been a huge people watcher. I also thought about becoming a psychologist at one point … very glad I didn’t go that route now!

  8. Great post! I love the idea of people having more in common than we usually think and therefore we can look inside ourselves to understand our characters. I bet that works with other real-life people too!

    I’m a big fan of interviewing my characters, asking them all sorts of questions and seeing what they come up with. (as I’ve blogged about here:http://writerbug.blogspot.com/2007_01_01_archive.html (Scroll down to “Hello new character” post)

  9. ah! you remind me of my English teacher who used to say, to be a good writer you must understand people.

    great read!

  10. Yes, I lost something with that blogger eater also. lol. I think studying people and being interested in psycology certainly helps develop characters. I loved the characters in Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist, all the family members in Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible ( especially told from the different points of view), and Jacob in Water for Elephants(which I just finished).

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