Monday, January 15, 2007

Creating Characters: Profilers vs. Pantsers

Just as writers generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to plotting, I also see two distinct approaches to creating characters. Some authors essentially create their characters as they write, while others need to know every little detail about their characters before they can sit down and type, Chapter One.

There are writers who compile huge dossiers on their characters, complete with 20 or 30 page lists of questions they use to “interview” their characters. They can tell you their characters’ favorite color, the most memorable thing that ever happened to them, their favorite food, the most embarrassing moment in their lives, what they have in their pockets. On one level, at least, these kinds of writers know more about their characters than I know about myself. These are the Profilers.

And then there are their opposites, those who fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to their characters. They may know the vague outlines of their main character’s life—what his father did for a living, where she went to college, how many siblings he has, if her mother is still alive. But beyond that, these author’s characters really only come to life when the authors start to write.

Guess which category I fall into? If you guessed Profilers, BZZZZ, you lose. I plot like a fiend, but when it comes to my characters, I think about them sometimes in the shower, or when I lay down to take a nap, but for the most part, I let them come to me as I write. That’s when the magic happens.

Back in the early days of my writing career, I discovered one of those lists of Questions Every Author Should Be Able to Answer About Her Characters, and panicked. Oh, God; I didn’t know what was in my heroine’s underwear drawer. I didn’t know what she thought of her first grade teacher. So I sat down with the list and tried to make up answers, and it felt…forced. Worse, it felt constraining. What if I said she loved her first grade teacher, but then I came to a scene where I wanted her to be permanently traumatized by something the woman did to her? I dithered. I panicked some more. And then I thought, This is ridiculous, and threw it away. Since then, I've met profiling writers who seemed to know their characters to an enviable degree, yet when I read their books, I found their characters oddly lifeless.

There are also some wonderful writers out there who swear by the Profiling technique. I’m not one of them. I don’t even know how my husband felt about his first grade teacher, and I’d have to look to tell you what’s in my pocket. I don’t know the most embarrassing moment in the life of my hero, Sebastian; I’ve never needed to know it. I do know how Sebastian feels about cruelty and intolerance—it was a part of the man that gradually coalesced during those thinking sessions before I lulled off to sleep on the couch or stepped out of the shower. Did I say to myself, “Sebastian hates cruelty and intolerance”? No. I now know that Sebastian dearly loves his father, despite all the problems they’ve had, and also loves his sister even though he’s wary of her. Did I know that when I first started writing WHAT ANGELS FEAR? I don’t think so. But when I was writing and I came to the scenes where I needed that information, it was there, in my subconscious.

When it comes to characters, I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious.


Anonymous said...

I like your approach to characters myself. Sometimes you find a point in the story/novel where something new jumps out at you about the character, and it's "perfect" for that spot. Preplanning the character in too much detail would make such experiences impossible.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Like yourself and Charles, you can count me as a diligent Plotter who at the planning stage keeps characters' details to the minimum. I usually do an eight-line paragraph on the six principal characters, nothing on other characters at all. And what I put down is basic: age, temperament, motivation. Physical description scarcely figures, though a picture has to be emerging in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Tell me, do you think flying by the seat of the pants is good for the initial burst, but for the rewrite, maybe jotting down notes from the text so you avoid inconsistencies? Also so you can go back and add little niceties?

Anonymous said...

Stewart, I keep a sort of character bible, if you will, and when I add something or discover something about a character in a story I also go and add it in the brief description in my bible. That way I can have it at my fingertips without searching through the whole manuscript.

cs harris said...

I find I remember the details about my main character, Stewart, but I do need to look things up about other characters, especially now that I'm into the fourth book in a series. I keep a "continuity notebook" with everything from street addresses to servants' names to eye color.

Anonymous said...

I fall into the pantser mode too. I have a rough sketch of my main characters before i write but nothing detailed. They come alive on the page and then add things to their indivual mind map.

Anonymous said...

I have a hundred and thirty pages of manuscript for a horror novel. It is currently waiting to be restarted in the Spring, when school starts again. But the characters are so solid in my mind that I don't think I'm going to have any problem resetting. Still, I like your idea and I think when I am ready to rewrite that I'll first read the work and take notes on character, just in case.