Aaand we're back, with more great notes from last year's Emerald City Comic Con! I really enjoyed the insight here in this great Q&A panel about character.
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Breathing Life into Your Characters
Emma Michaels, Marie Frances, Cornelia Funke
Moderator: Heather Reasby
With short stories: do you have tips and tricks to help add quick depth to a character?
EM: Put them into a situation that tests them. The situation and how they react to it is vital.
MF: Come in with a backstory, what character they’ve developed..
CF: The leaner you can get, the better – you can get so brilliant, sometimes do the first draft fast, rewrite it many times, then read it aloud. Keep some secrets (don’t explain too much). Have them contradictory, have a lot of fun with it, then work on the language. If the language doesn’t work, the story won’t work. Don’t think about how it would sell. Feel like a magician when you do it, and it will be fine.
Do you have any secret weapons or go-to techniques, best ways to get into characters and really develop them?
CF: A character sometimes just comes to you. Keeps a character bible by hand, images of characters she doesn’t know yet – don’t just use actors as models because it’s so dangerous, the characters are already taken and overused.
MF: Characters just come to her. Sees someone who looks distinctive and the character will come to her. Allow the character to surprise you.
EM: Don’t force it if the storyline and character don’t mesh. Do a lot of people watching. Think about the people you love, and even they have flaws.
CF: Every character has a little bit about yourself.
What are some tips for trying to understand in a way characters, especially main characters, that are very different from you?
CF: Expect that they will lie to you, surprise you. (Doesn’t believe in writer’s block, it’s just that the story tricked you and you are stymied by the surprise.)
EM: Observe, make sure the characters don’t give you illusions about them, don’t let them become more than who they are (characteristic wise). Don’t be afraid to test the limits, or to test your own limits as well. Write like only you can write.
Characters more interesting in story you put them in – how do you fix that?
EM: Don’t be afraid to not think of them so much as your friends but of yourself as an onlooker. Put them in extreme situations and circumstances.
CF: Don’t overdo plot. Find out what your style is.
EM: Don’t be afraid to have your fiction be honest. Don’t just write tailored work. Write what you’re actually feeling.
CF: Don’t expect overnight success. Also, characters are only interesting if they have an interesting story.
What comes first, the situation or the character? Tips for characters for both types?
CF: Both work. Can make the location, have a canvas on which you paint, then the location will give you the character. The richness of the location can sometimes evoke characters. But sometimes a character will step into your life and demand a story.
How do you illustrate a character’s flaws when writing young, flawed characters – especially younger ones?
CF: Don’t write the flaws down. Young characters know who they are. They’re not as masked, they’re clever. The older we get we put ourselves in a box. A child is a hundred people at the same time, and is okay with that. Grownups question everything they say, how they are perceived. Children are in many ways our better selves. Make them as clever and clear as you want. They are surprising with how clever and how much they know.
EM: Sometimes story or character comes from an object.
CF: Often it’s back and forth: story feeds into character into story. Every story is another challenge. They’re so interwoven.
Tips on making characters sound different?
MF: Listen to the characters, let them say what they’re going to say, give them the freedom to do that and evolve on their own. They’ll develop their own voices. Don’t let them completely derail the story, wrangle as necessary, but do listen to them.
EM: Choose something you know they’d be judged based off of, and show that it’s actually really beautiful, fascinating, wonderful.
CF: Watching the world from a slightly different angle is a privilege.
EM: Even getting to see the world as uglier is a privilege.
How do you approach a character with an accent?
CF: Can’t do it in German – doing so is perceived as dumb, making fun of the character.
EM: The same way the character comes to her. Also, if a different language is your first language, the order of the way you think about things, the thought pattern, is different. The character’s language can be simpler, more complex, more poetic.
HR: The devil is in the details. Look at word order but don’t throw a heavy amount of dialect to overwhelm the reader.
CF: Different speakers use word choice differently, too.
How do you convey to audience what the character is thinking, get into characters’ heads, to your audience?
CF: Complete inner monologue chapters, association, remembering, but do it indirectly but have it echo from an object or incident. Inner dialogue.
EM: You can explain things without spelling them out – a word here and there can hint at their thought process. Also, tries switching between first and third person to get the outside, the inside perspectives to see it anew and then choose.
How do you avoid writing stereotypes?
MF: Think outside the box, make characters for the fun of it. See how they evolve.
EM: Look beyond what the stereotype shows. There’s always a reason for something, something that caused something, the way things are.
CF: Sometimes people are actually a stereotype. Some people hide from themselves, wear the mask, want to be just the stereotype. Can use for comedic effect.
What about giving a villain an in-depth story?
CF: The villains are the ones she knows last. Not cliché. Voldemort is a good villain. The ones that surprise you.
MF: Loves writing complex villains with understandable motivation. Usually villains act and heroes react. Villain should be complex, more interesting, to explain why they’ve turned to those actions. The best villains she’s ever read had something redeemable about them, something likeable, so you can sympathize.
EM: Think about the villains in your life. Who’s made themselves a villain to you and how did they do it, how did they become a villain in your eyes? Sometimes it’s about them making a mistake at the wrong moment. Sometimes villains view themselves as having messed up, and working that into a villain can help you know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
CF: Sometimes we underestimate evil. You think there can’t be as much evil in the world as you hear about. It’s easy to romanticize villains. There’s a danger in romanticizing violence, evil, understanding every crime as something we all do. So when you create a character, don’t necessarily make them charismatic. Evil isn’t romantic. It’s horrible. True evil is crippled, and someone who doesn’t love, feel compassion, is a dark hole. Try to make them hateful, have the reader want them to die. Have respect for that. See the potential in evil that it is crippled and not glamorous.
CF: Write for the passion, not to trends.