Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Building Believable Characters - Marc McCutcheon

My friend Sunil Jyoti asked me to look in and see if there were any books from his father's impressive collection that I may want after J.R. Jyoti saab passed away. Though he was Sunil Jyoti's father, Jyoti saab became my friend too, interested as he was in the writing process, and more some, humour. He had the entire collection of Wodehouse and I cannot forget the sight of a full steel almirah filled with Wodehouses. He was very encouraging of my writing forays and when he heard that I was attempting to write a novel back in 1997-98, he invited me to a creative writing class he was part of at IGNOU. In that class at the IGNOU centre in Srinagar colony, I met Vinod Ekbote, who became a thick pal, and BS Murthy, Major Kiran and of course Anil Ekbote who was teaching the course. Jyoti saab wrote funny pieces and made a collection of the same and published them as 'Day Becomes Night and Other Stories'.

In the hundreds of books lying there at Sunil's house, I found a whole bunch of books on the writing process - plot, characters, dialogue, short story, novel etc and took those. One Sunil was very generous and called me knowing my interest in writing. One of those books is this one on building believable characters.

Instead of writing about the subject himself, the author picked the minds of several other writers.

Part 1
Some of their thoughts are given here.
You can project a little of yourself into every character, but not too far.
Keep character notebooks.
Get a good handle on the majors with background etc. You don't need to give your readers all the information you know about your characters.
Cut out pictures from magazines to better visualise my characters.
You have to know your characters somewhat better than you know yourself.
Write family trees. Then file it away. Put your characters in conflict with the manuscript and see what they are made of.
If I am foggy about the character he will be foggy to the reader as well.
Characters are composites of friends, relatives, people I know.
Names are very important. The name either sounds right or doesn't.
Give physical traits to characters to reveal them. Find physical elements that convey interior attitudes.
Feed in key details only.
Whenever possible combine a physical description with some form of action.
Always show. Reveal personality traits in action.
A character with vulnerability is a character who has to show character to survive, to triumph to overcome.
Characters should not be perfect or predictable. They must be true to their own past and their beliefs.
Characters must move the plot, not the other way.
Show description through a character's eyes.
Use catchwords, phrases, certain pauses, emotional responses.
People don't talk in complete sentences.
Suspect any paragraph of dialogue over three lines long.
I prefer to let the actual dialogue stand on its own.

Part 2
Character Questionnaire
This has details like name, age, height, weight, body type, physical condition, eye color, hair color and style, distinguishing features, physical imperfections that she would like to change, characteristic gestures, race, ethnic group, religion, family background, lineage, years of schooling, degrees, skills, abilities, expertise, occupation, goals, personality type, quirks, temperament, admirable traits, habits, prejudices, important political and social issues, opinion on abortion, crime, sense of humour, fears, manias, illnesses, hobbies, interests, sports, TV shows, movies, travel, drink, books, diet, clothing, trauma sexual turn on/off, philosophy of life, best friend, home, car, neighbourhood, major problems, solutions etc.
And some more.

Part 3

There is a character thesaurus after this for all kinds of words to describe 1) Face and Body - Complexions and skin types, eye type and shape, eye colors, noses, hair, facial hair, body type, body parts 2) Personality/identity - Personality traits inventory, Bad habits/vices, Psychological problems, Selected diseases, disorders, hobbies and sports, societies and associations, college degrees, occupations 3) Facial expressions, body and vocal language - Anger, anxiety, tension fear and panic, shock, pain surprise, suspicion, guilt, arrogance, disgust and nausea, happiness, sadness, love, affection, lust, Laughs 4) Dress - Dresses, skirts, pants and shorts, undergarments, shoes and boots, caps and hats, glasses and sunglasses 5) Dialects and foreign speech 6) Given names and surnames 7) Character homes - Tudor, shanty, penthouse etc etc.

It's incredibly detailed and exhaustive and covers all you need to know about your character. Fantastic book to read and refer. The advice, questionnaire and thesaurus are a treasure.

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