Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Julie Cohen - Masterclass in Character Development

Actually, this took place a couple of Fridays ago, and I'm only just getting on with the write up now - boy am I out of sorts.

Anyhoo, we here at Bracknell Library had the author Julie Cohen over for a bit of a conflab and spin through how she creates characters.

But first:

Julie is an American living in Reading and started out writing three books for Mills and Boon. As we all know, that's a very specific writing format to fit into, so good on her. Now she's written 9 of them and 4 (of what I'd call) proper books.

She's clearly set on her road of romantic novel writing (more specifically quirky-chick-lit) fairly well, but what does she have to impart to the unpublished author?

Well, she took us on a whirlwind tour of methods for creating characters - you know, fully-fledged, rounded, conflicted, interesting - that sort of character.

We covered eight ways (some longer than others), but first we had two postits and a coin. So, Julie went round the table handing out two alphabet letters per person, which took two loops. We each wrote down the two letters we'd been allocated on one postit and handed that to the person on our right.

Next we came up with a number between 1 and 100, wrote it on the second postit and passed that to our left.

Finally, we tossed the coin and chose our character's sex: heads for female, tails for male and if it landed on a body part or akilter, that meant a robot or asexual or something odd.

Which gave me D. R. A 73 yearold female.

Bear with me, this is just the setup.

I chose to call my character Deane Robards

1. The Basic Description

For this part we were asked to describe our character in anyway we pleased, as long as we used the words extraordinary and yellow. (The words are a way of getting your imagination working - they don't have to be included and they don't have to be extraordinary or yellow).

Deanne sits in an upright chair, keeping her back straight to fight the spasms - a result of her circus days. She has drawn on eyebrows and must constantly wipe her brow to stop sweat stinging her yellowed eyes. She sits quietly for the most part, on the porch of her terraced home, seemingly asleep to the world. But she never sleeps. Not even when it is time to do so. She sits on her porch, still and silent, and seemingly dead, but for an extraordinary ability to greet every passerby long before her ears should have registered their approach.
2. Showing

In this exercise we were asked to walk our characters into a room and get them to pick up an object (of our choosing).
Deane pushed the door open with her cane, let it swing wide and surveyed the bedroom. Everything was still. Everything was as it had been the day she found Bill. She stared at the bed covers, thrown aside by the paramedics and tried to imagine Bill as he had been, asleep, not dead. She couldn't do it. The dresser opposite was still a clutter of creams and curlers, the vanity mirror still tipped back against the wall so that shafts of light lined the ceiling. And her glasses... It was useless to try and see them from outside. The curtains were closed and she had no choice but to go in. She took it slow. Short hobbling steps. The cane used to be a big help, but these days the pains in her legs made it almost too difficult to walk. But she kept going, trying not to look back at the bed again and finally at the dresser she stopped and peered down. Had to push aside some of the mess with the cane. And there they were. She plucked them off the dresser and clutched them to her chest as she turned back to the door, avoiding the sight of the bed. From this angle, she remembered, it looked like an empty cadaver on a mortuary slab.
As you can see I was more interested in getting the character in there than picking up the object - boy does my mind wander - and I had to finish the exercise while Julie talked about the next one.

3. Symbolism

We were asked to consider the importance (emotionally) of our objects.

In my case, the glasses were needed so that Deanne could see if she'd won the lottery - her home was remortgaged to help her kids out (and they've deserted with her money), but she can't stay in the place where she found Bill dead. She needs to win the lottery so that she can pay off her debts and move out.

4. Setting

Obviously, this is about describing the place where the character lives... or rather, locates themselves.
5. Conflict

What does the character want more than anything? This is answered in the Symbolism. And what stands in their way? In this case, Deanne not having her glasses... and then not winning the lottery.

6. Good Quality Versus Worst Quality

Two qualities in a person create conflict.

I.e. A very generous person either: i) puts others first always, or ii) always wants something in return.

i) This leads to the character playing second fiddle to others and never getting what they want, or exhausted because they never have any "me time".
ii) This leads to a need in the character. An expectation that others will always play their part.

The good and bad quality are intrinsically linked helping to round out your character. The character must change the good part of their nature in order to remove/make better the bad part.

Check out Julie's little chart on this:

7. Voice

Obviously, this is about dialogue or writing in the first person. Getting a sense of the character, the way their mind works, colloquialisms, etc

8. Other ways
  • Put character in a place they don't belong
  • Meet a character with different goals
  • Meet a character with same goals but different methods
  • Give them an impossible task
  • They make a horrible mistake
  • They're forced to confront their past
  • They lose everything
  • They win something they don't want
  • They get unexpected/unwanted fame
The interesting thing about Julie is that whatever she writes as she gets a sense of character, she throws out once she starts writing the book, and never refers to her notes again.

I guess she writes fast enough so that it doesn't exit her frontal lobe before she's done.

No comments: