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Characters and Personality (Theirs and Yours)

The topic for the blog chain this time, started by the lovely Leah Clifford, is

Are your characters real people to you?
How much do you really know about them?

Be sure to check out Kate's response (she's the blogger before me in the chain) and Michelle's response (she's the blogger after me in the chain) as well as the responses of the other bloggers in the chain -- they're listed to your left.

Are your characters real people to you?


And sometimes I tie my brain in a pretzel thinking about the nature of reality, and -- sparing you the philosophical Rube Goldberg machine -- what I end up with is, Do I have any proof that they're not real, somewhere, somehow?

I mean, it often feels like I'm just writing about what's happening somewhere else, because I know when I've got it "right" and I know when I've got it "wrong."  (Though I don't always know how to fix it when I've got it wrong.  I always feel like I need to listen more carefully.)

Other writers have that same experience, though they might not describe it in the same way I have.  They refer to it as "automatic writing" or as "listening to the Muse" or (if they're psychologically minded) as "flow."

How much do you really know about them?

A lot, though I don't learn it all at once. 

Some writers' books and magazines encourage you to learn all the mundane details about your characters, but I don't really care what kinds of grades my characters got in high school or what their exact weight is or every last job they've ever held.  I focus on personality characteristics, fears, terrible secrets, and especially on little details that don't seem to fit the rest of what I know about them. 

For example, I have a character who's hotheaded, blunt, and prefers people to be a little afraid of him.  So when I learned that he was bilingual, a practicing Catholic, and adores his cat, I was intrigued.  Learning about why the face he presents to the world is so different from who he is underneath was important, not only so I could write him "accurately," but also because it drove the plot foward.

I tend to learn so much about my characters that I have to write a lot of it down somewhere so I don't forget, but also so I don't accidentally "contaminate" my characters with how I would do things.  Here's a piece of one of my novels' character sheets (sorry it's ugly, SnagIt tries to create a small file).  I used the RPRF descriptions to help myself make the list of personality qualities in the middle column.  (Read more about how to use it for your own stories here.)  I have also been known to give my characters personality tests.

To me, one of the most intriguing things about learning about characters is how much I learn about myself while I'm doing it.  After all, even if it feels like I'm channeling something from outside myself, I know that in reality the stories come from somewhere inside of me.

And each character reflects a different aspect of my personality.  Carl Jung would have said that only by learning about and accepting that each of those characters is part of the whole self can we learn who we really are.  In other words, your hero must confront his dark side, but to create a truly dark villain, you must delve into your own dark side.  So your villain reflects your own darkness.  Likewise, your hero(ine)'s love interest is likely to be based on your own idea of what's attractive.  So the love interest acts as your hero(ine)'s anima or animus, but is also a reflection of your own.

Narrative therapy theory argues that we create our own reality with the stories we tell about our lives.  When we tell stories, we flavor them with our own perspectives.  If I am in a car accident, when I tell it to my friends, I don't focus on how fast the cars were going, the angle of impact, or the amount of debris on the road.  I focus on how I felt and the role I played.  I might portray myself as a victim, or as unfairly accused of doing wrong, or even as a hero for helping the people in the other car afterwards.  The way I tell my story becomes my reality.

I believe that the stories we tell as writers both reflect our realities and help form them, too.  So as a writer, ask yourself what kinds of characters you like to create, and what (possibly hidden) aspects of yourself make those kinds of characters so compelling for you?

You might be surprised what you learn about yourself.  And your willingness to dig around in your own subconscious may reveal even more about your characters, as well!


  1. Anonymous said...
    Holy cow Archetype! You are sooo deep! I love the character sketches you showed, that was awesome. I think you're completely right about separating your characters from yourself. I mean, I'm not immortal, rich, or dashingly handsome (really, I'm not), and I have to remember that my characters are real themselves, and I can't project myself onto them.

    I also liked how we do write part of ourselves into the story, no matter how hard we try not to. You are the queen for today! I am in awe!
    Michelle McLean said...
    Hmm, not sure I like following you :) You are just too awesome, excellent post!

    I think a little piece of me ends up in my MCs, and little pieces of people I know end up in my other characters. But many times, my MC is purposely very unlike me. She can do things that I would never do. I get to live through her vicariously and it's interesting to see what happens sometimes :)
    Kate Karyus Quinn said...
    I agree with Michelle - I also like to live vicariously through my characters!

    BTW, I agree that this is an awesome posting! I love that you give you characters personality test - that is just too cool!
    H. L. Dyer said...
    Always nice to have a little psychology lesson mixed into your writing.

    You rock, Carolyn!
    Anonymous said...
    To echo elana: Holy cow Archetype!

    Your post almost made my brain hurt, but I think I understand, especially about a part of you being in your characters. I know that's true for me. Or rather, I know that a part of who I want to be is in a lot of my characters...I'll comment more on that in my entry.

    Great, great job. I'm not sure if I'm worthy enough to be in this QT blog chain.
    Anonymous said...
    Awesome post Archetype! (I'm just catching up on my blog reading.) Though you are a tad too organized for my poor Type B brain, I am so with you in your thought process.

    Great post!

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