Writing Characters

Apple or Orange?

Left or Right?

Follower or Leader?

Head or Heart?

If you Google writing characters you’ll probably find a bunch of websites providing various charts of the same (basic) thing: a character chart (asking questions about your character). Don’t get me wrong, character sheets ask crucial questions an author needs to know before developing complex Katniss Everdeen or Samwise Gamgee characters – but man-oh-man is it hard to answer some of those questions. I know I struggled with some of the more personal questions like character’s greatest fear & character’s secret. How do you answer something multifaceted with a simple one-word/sentence answer? It’s near impossible, isn’t it? Aren’t characters like people, beings that are inexplicably complex?

Aren’t we more mysterious than that?

We wish.

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Confession time: Animals are mysterious. But people? Characters? Sorry to tell you, Joe, but people are not mysterious…and neither are characters. Writers can write surprise plot twist, people can surprise you sometimes…but our personality? Accept it or not, we all have internal instincts that define who we are, revealing our true spirits in the end.

No, I don’t think character sheets secure permeant answers about your characters because characters, like people, grow, mature, and change.  I do think provide guidelines necessary for grounding a writer’s understanding of who their characters are – deep down. If we don’t know who our characters are or what they want to be, we have no story. Period.

HELP! That doesn’t make answering the character chart any easier!

BULLET TIME!

The perfect recipe before writing characters:

Mix…

The result? Four categories to fuel your Q&A till you hit that ah-ha moment – that I KNOW WHO MY CHARACTER IS moment. My advice to you? Be brave and stop over thinking. Completing character charts isn’t an interview for a job, though sometimes it feels like one. Your characters are your babies, your friends, sometimes even a reflection of yourself…let them talk to you, learn from them, and don’t connect – REFLECT. Their flaws and their strengths will identify their personality and psyche, making them universal and reader-relatable.

4 Categories to ONE Realization – Writing Memorable Characters

  • APPLE or ORANGE?
  • LEFT or RIGHT?
  • FOLLOWER OR LEADER?
  • HEAD or HEART?

APPLE OR ORANGE?

This question is probably just because I wanted something light and fun to start with or because I’m a movie buff and my immediate thought (when I hear apple & orange) is the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding reciting his speech at the reception… “You know, the root of the word Miller is a Greek word. Miller come from the Greek word ‘milo,’ which is mean ‘apple,’ so there you go. As many of you know, our name, Portokalos, is come from the Greek word ‘portokali,’ which mean ‘orange.’ So, okay? Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We all different, but in the end, we all fruit.

Pretty comical analysis used to identify different people, yet true. Apple or Orange, different and yet (in the end) the same…so what does this have to do with writing characters?

Think about it.

Crunchy, sweet, tart, and delicious!  Very tough, versatile fruits :)
Crunchy, sweet, tart, and delicious! Very tough, versatile fruits 🙂

Apple: Apples are hard, crunchy. They come in various colors (green, yellow, red, red and yellow). They have lots of different flavors from tart to sweet, and can be specialized for different cooking like sour ingredients in a summer salad or sugary cinnamon-apple pies. They can bruise, but only after suffering a nasty fall. They endure, growing best in a time when everything else starts to die (fall). They heal, preventing germs from invading our immune systems, which is perhaps one of the reasons Greek mythology symbolizes the honey-tasting, magical apples as the fruit Hera (queen of the Greek gods) protected with a dragon. They’re not perfect (just ask Troy). Tough, yes, but not invincible – a worm can infect an apple at its core, rotting it from the inside out.

Oranges, tangy with an acidic punch, flavoring your tongue with a sticky juice without any surprises!  Tough to tear open, but squishy on the inside.
Oranges, tangy with an acidic punch, flavoring your tongue with a sticky juice without any surprises! Tough to tear open, but squishy on the inside.

Orange: Oranges are squishy, juicy, acidic, and bright. Oranges come in one color, orange (hence the name), giving the fruit-pickers a food consistent with its imagery. There are no surprises to the taste of an orange unless you choose to gnaw on its skin (blah!) – tough skin, much tougher than an apple’s thin layer (easier to puncture, very thin). The difference? Oranges are soft on the inside, storing a sweet & tangy juice (and sticky!) that powers the immune system with Vitamin C – an energy charger, a cold fighter, a contender. A fruit that is mature beyond seasons, leaving no question to why the Dutch symbolized the orange as the social and moral status of a person in fifteenth century portraits.

Did you think about your own characters when you read these descriptions? Good.  Now analyze a complex character like Katniss or Samwise. Can you decide which one they resemble? Or are they, as Papa Portokolos would say…both fruit?

Left or Right?

People tend to use one part of their brain more than others - by identifying the dominant part of someone's brain, we can better predict their decisions/personalities
People tend to use one part of their brain more than others – by identifying the dominant part of someone’s brain, we can better predict their decisions/personalities

There are four parts to a person’s brain – right frontal, right basal, left frontal, and left basal – and two sides – left and right. Scientists claim people use only about 10% of their total brain capacity (how crazy is that?), leaving the other 90% floating off into a less-dominant storage space. Ideally, people would tap into all parts/sides of their brain, overcoming any flaws created by their more dominant instincts. Without the other 90%, however, people are not perfect – and that’s okay because characters aren’t perfect either (it’s what makes them interesting!). Consider the four dominate personalities created by each side of the brain and decide where your characters sit.

  • Left Frontal – logical, judgmental, good at making decisions, black & white way, analytical
  • Right Frontal – out-of-the-box thinkers, creative, sees the big picture and intuitive, but emotional/cares about feelings of others
  • Left Basal – highly organized, attention to detail (might organize everything by color)
  • Right Basal – emotional and nurturing, talkative

Did you decide what your characters are yet? Pump your jets! You should also consider two personality types that complicate your character’s personality –

  • Extroverted – outgoing, social
  • Introverted – quiet, lets others take the lead
extrovert-introvert
Who are you?

Got your brain type/personality now? Wonderful. I bet that helped, didn’t it? If you get stuck, think about the difference between Katniss (right frontal, introvertedtakes the lead even if she doesn’t want to be the leader. Makes decisions and sees the big picture but cares when her decisions hurt people she loves) v. Samwise (right basal, introverteda gardener, very nurturing and caring for the small things he loves but tougher than he thinks…taking the lead when Frodo fades).

FOLLOWER OR LEADER?

Pretty straightforward, so I won’t get into this category much, though don’t mistake how important it is when analyzing your character(s). I will make one point about something I’ve noticed in the fantasy stories (and other literary fiction/nonfiction) I love – follower or leader, the protagonist (hero) usually BECOMES a or BECOMES a STRONGER leader in the end. Sometimes they start off as a follower, like Samwise, but tremendous challenges force them to make decisions, pulling out their inner hero-spirit (restoring the reader’s hope!). Others, like Katniss, don’t choose to be a leader; they’re designated the job. They learn to embrace their role (like it or not) because they understand the importance of the responsibility (again, to give hope!). A hero is leader who must make sacrifices to protect the ones they love.

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Who are your characters? Follower or Leader?

HEAD OR HEART?

Another obvious category but in my opinion the most important. Look back at your character’s brain and reassess their dominant use of it (paired with their extrovert or introvert personality). Got it? Great – so tell me, head or heart? How does your character make a decision? Do they act before thinking, or think before they act? Are they logical and rationalize all sides of a situation before making a decision, or are they emotional, acting from their heart…always.  Head or Heart, your character will always lean towards one side or the other – and it’s that gut-instinct glorifying who they are as a hero.

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Well, there you have it, the four categories I use to help tackle those what-I-need-to-know-before-writing-character questions. Sorry to tell you, but you’re not off the hook. You do still need to (or I would HIGHLY advise you to consider) answer at least Brian Klem’s ten killer character questions via @WritersDigest. No, my blog probably didn’t feed you the answers to these ten, but hopefully it did one thing…

Teach you to stop thinking about your characters and start thinking LIKE your characters!

Getting in their head is the only way you can get them to talk to you. It took me three drafts before this magic started happening. Maybe if I had thought about what I mentioned above, I would have heard them sooner (and been able to answer those ten questions easier!).

Good thing you read this cheat sheet. Now stop reading, stop thinking and…Get LISTENING!

Go WRITE! 🙂

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