Monday Musings: “The test of character is….

“The test of character is having the ability to meet challenges.”
~ Walter Annenberg ~

Annenberg had the characters of “live” individuals in mind when he penned or uttered these words. In adversity, we do tend to discover our own strengths. We learn what we’re prepared to do to accomplish our goals. We sometimes even uncover our greatest weaknesses, our deepest fears. All of the challenges we face in our lives make up the total of who we are as a person.

It is this character that makes each of us unique and interesting. It is what draws others to us as friends, lovers, mates, and family, or repels if we were identified as a villain or antagonist in someone’s life. (Theoretically speaking, of course. None of us could possibly be a villain or antagonist. {g} But I digress.)

So, can we do any less for our fictional characters? As the legendary John Wayne, a larger-than-life character in real and fictional life, would say, “Not hardly!”

I believe plotting has an important place in the writer’s toolbox, even for those of us who write by the seat of our pants. I wouldn’t teach the “W” plotting technique otherwise. However, I think the single most critical aspect of our stories still rests upon our characters’ shoulders. We can’t have a story without people.

So, how can we make characters “real” for our readers? What’s the trick to making them living, breathing individuals readers want to live with for a few hours or days? First and foremost, they must become real for us. They must become the best friend we have a cappuccino with on Friday mornings at Starbucks or invite to the family BBQ on Sunday. How else will we know where the characters come from, who they are, where they’re going, and what they’ll have to overcome to get what they want?

I know some writers who will read this and break out into a cold sweat at the thought of where I’m headed with today’s musings. I used to be right there with you! I did learn however, probably much later into my writing career than necessary (did I mention I can be a really slow learner?), that character worksheets don’t have to be on a par with having a Caesarian with no anesthetic. In fact, beyond letting my muse have free rein with a scene, playing with my character worksheets has become a pleasurable part of my pre-writing routine.

How did I, the ultimate pantser, travel from free range writing to embrace any structure, let alone the dreaded character worksheet? Part of it was thanks to my discovery of the “W” plotting technique. Finding a simplistic technique helped me to realize that I didn’t have to plot everything down to a gnat’s eyebrow to balance my professional need for structure and my creative need for freedom. With a growing confidence in my writing skills, I also discovered I don’t have to follow the dictates of every other writer as “gospel.” So, knowing I needed the three basics for my character – goal, motivation, and conflict – I created my own worksheet, which enabled me to get to know my characters the way I needed.

That’s not to say everyone must complete character worksheets to plumb the depths of their character’s psyches. It simply works for me.  I know some writers who conduct character interviews. Some build their character from the situation they want to create. Some develop the situation from the character they envision.

The goal is to find a way to get to know our characters so they become as real as you and I, three-dimensional people with a full range of purpose, feelings, and emotions. They might live and breathe in a world we create but, when we do our job right, our characters take on a life of their own and walk off the page into the lives of our readers.

And that’s the ultimate challenge for a writer, isn’t it?

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4 Responses to Monday Musings: “The test of character is….

  1. Angela K Roe says:

    My characters become so real they annoy me to no end until I write exactly what they want instead of what I had planned. It’s an adventure and I LOVE it!

  2. Karen Docter says:

    My characters do the same thing, Angela. More than annoying, though, when it’s the serial killer making his own rules. Right now, my killer’s scaring the crap out of me. I certainly didn’t dream this stuff up! 🙂

    Of course, there’s this really sexy hero who’s more than capable of dealing with him.

    Yep, you’ve got to love it!

  3. Love this, Karen, thank you!

  4. Karen Docter says:

    You’re welcome, Donnell. I’m glad you enjoyed my thoughts!

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