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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fleshing Out Flat Characters

Please welcome guest blogger Michelle Picard

Despite all our good intentions, there are times when we find ourselves pages into our manuscripts and are not feeling the love for one of our characters. Perhaps even an important character. Our hero? Our heroine? He or she comes off as flat, the back story we’ve undoubtedly memorized for her not only failing to make her three dimensional, but making us wonder who in the world would care about her if we can even slug through the rest of the manuscript.

This is when I return to my four square formula. You remember the game four square from childhood? My formula is summarized with four P’s:

-Pushed buttons
-Places she’s stuck
  1. Parents. What was the nature of my character’s relationship with his or her parents? Mother or Father specifically? Contentious? Cold? Loving? Imbalanced? Did the child act as the parent? Long to escape his or her household the first moment possible? If I understand early upbringing and early influences, I clearly envision what has brought her to the point in her life where the story begins.
  2. Passions. Does this character have a passion? Her vocation? Avocation? What sparks emotion for her? Art? Music? A particular injustice? I’m not talking sexual passion here, but the place in her soul she awakens despite other parts of her personality. I like my characters better when I know what else makes their hearts beat faster despite their love interest.
  3. Pushed Buttons. What ticks her off? What buttons can the other characters in the story push to show us the unattractive side to her? Although they may also show her strengths. These are not simply pet peeves like the toothpaste cap left on the counter. These are the words or attitudes that send the character over the edge. When someone tells her not to worry and she feels dismissed? When she’s preparing for trip and others in her life don’t keep to her schedule? When she’s ignored in a crowd? If you know what pushes her buttons you have to know why and that means you’ve gotten to understand her better.
  4. Places she’s stuck. This is a short cut for referring to the character’s beliefs about herself or her world that are wrong, got twisted somewhere along the path of her life. Those beliefs whose demise will allow her to grow. Identifying these beliefs is no easy task. And if you can find them, you’ve captured the core of your character and the best place to work her internal conflict.

My four square is clearly biased toward understanding internal conflict, although I find the external conflict of the plot flows easier when I have my mind wrapped around the internal. And the better I know my character, the more my mind is free to consider new surprising twists to the story. And this works even if I’m as far as half way through my manuscript. If I’ve reread my pages and despair over my characters, I pick up a notebook, go take a walk, and drag out my list of P’s. Most of the time, I get back on track and fall in love again with the story. Which is the best feeling ever.

If you had to pick the handful of things you MUST know about your characters, what would they be?

If you want to take a peak at how my characters have turned out, visit me at www.MichellePicard.com.

Ever since she was a young girl and her fifth grade teacher read the class Peter S. Beagle’s novel THE LAST UNICORN, Michelle has been fascinated with all things magical, mysterious and otherworldly. She wrote her first tragic fantasy novella in middle school, recruiting art-minded friends to draw pictures of the fantastical universes she created.

Taking the road frequently traveled (not quite as romantic as the less traveled variety), and getting a BA in political science and a Masters in social work, she settled in New England. Along the way she collected a husband, two sons and two cats.

Finally, Michelle grabbed the proverbial bull by its spiky protrusions and pursued her passion. She now writes fantasy and urban fantasy, and admits to a fascination with gateways and portals, which seem to crop up in any story she writes.

Michelle is hard at work continuing her Eden’s Court series, and hopes you join her following Rachel and Gabriel’s adventures.

Please visit her at her website at www.michellepicard.com, her blog at www.michellepicardsblog.wordpress.com and at her group blog at www.thequirkyladies.com.
She’s on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/people/Michelle-Picard/100000107670126 and on Twitter @RulingEden

Surviving Eden

Rachel Rieh wields enough magic to make a goddess jealous, or so she learned three weeks ago when she thought she was an ordinary, reclusive, and short-tempered gal from Boston. In this second story of Eden’s Court, Rachel, now the new ruler of the Kesayim, (angels, demons, dragons, faeries, vampires, shapeshifters and witches¾the goddess-created protectors of mortalkind) finds herself faced with the task of stopping vampire hunters from annihilating the vampire race. Her lover, Gabriel, half-angel, half-demon, stands by her side to help if she can escape her obsession with protecting him at all cost.

Earth is already on the verge of destruction within six months because magic is out of balance. The new threat to the vampires destabilizes the situation more. In her race to save the vampires, Rachel meets Lillith, goddess, creator of all Kesayim and humans, and the one with all the answers to Rachel’s problems. But is the cold-hearted goddess intent on changing Rachel into her image the greater threat to Rachel and everyone she loves?


Pamala Knight said...

Thank you for the Four P's, Michelle!! It helps immensely, to be able to get the total picture of a character. Your timely advice is priceless.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Michelle! I was sitting here next to a life size standup of Johnny Depp as Disney's Mad Hatter (daughter's wedding shower is Mad Hatter Tea Party), when I noticed this blog post. I had to chuckle because I have had many mixed reactions to the usually rough around the edges but still hunky hero gone "mad" and a bit "creepy". I would be fascinated to know what his early childhood was like, toxic glue aside. Thanks for the interesting take on getting to know our characters from the inside out.

Michelle Picard said...

Thanks Pam and Elizabeth for taking a peek at this post. I do hope the P's come in handy for you at some point, whether it's for your own characters or for Mr. Hatter (grin). How fun to speculate.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

You know, I totally read the title of this post as "Fleshing Out Fat Characters," which I suppose needs doing also...

MIa Marlowe said...

The 4 P's are excellent, but may I venture to add a 5th? How about Turning POINTS? In every life there are choices that shape not only the course of the life, but the character of the person who made them. I have to know about those important decisions in my character's past and how it impacted them. And I have to make sure at least one POINT takes place between the pages of the book.