Thursday, October 23, 2014

Unique and Universal: Part 2

I am continuing my series on putting myself into my characters.

I have realized that this series could be taken as a "how to" by some of you aspiring novelists. I want to clarify here that this is not my intention. While these are tricks and methods I have used to create my cast of characters, I am not writing these out as a formula for you to go and try to mimic. What I want you to take away from these posts is not another writer's formula that will solve all your characterization problems. What I want you to take away is the honesty. A great character is an honest character.  A great character is a mirror, not a mask.

Anyway, let me now continue with a short summary of another method I use for characterization. Let me call this method the Personality Method.

This method is the simplest when it comes to creating a dynamic character. It can also be the most painful, so you do have to be prepared for backlash. With this method, I write a personality much like my own into a key character. I then place that character in a situation dramatically different from mine. And I watch the character morph from someone very like me into someone completely unique--keeping in mind that situations will have a profound effect on shaping the soul.

I remember beginning to learn this method back in high school when I co-wrote a completely horrendous novel with my best friend. It's horrendous because it is so badly written, but we both learned a lot in the process. What I learned had to do with the Personality Method.

While my best friend wrote a heroine who was beautiful, talented, misunderstood, and completely and utterly desirable to all the best-looking young men in town . . . I wrote a heroine who was like me. She was shy. She was insecure. She was really, really wanting to be pretty, but far too awkward and insecure to actually get there. She had talents, but wasn't brilliant at any of them, and was far too insecure to let anyone see them anyway. She was generally quite well-liked by those around her, but not in a lauded or acclaimed sort of manner. She felt just kind of there and terribly shy about it.

And the only young men who sought her favor were the most awkward, ugly, immature, and obnoxious ones.

Heheheh. It makes me laugh to remember this! But that was very much me back in those days. It was what I knew and what I could write with honesty. And you know what? The precious few we allowed to see our horrendous novel all rather liked my character better. Because she was unique and universal all at the same time.

Most of us girls are not and never will be beautiful, talented, misunderstood, not to mention completely and utterly desirable to all the best-looking young men in town. But most of us girls have felt insecure and a little wallflower-ish now and then. Most us girls have felt a bit frustrated that the only guys who look our way are the last guys we want looking! At some time or another, that particular character's woes have been our woes.

So you put that character in a weird situation--and let me tell you, the situation my best friend and I came up with was weird--and it makes for both fun reading and fun writing!

While that book was a complete disaster, the method was a good one and one I kept in mind. Fast-forward now a handful of years to the summer just after I left college. I had been experimenting for some time with more Dramatic with a capital "D" characters, but struggled with writing any honesty into my work. The characters were all larger than life, but they were none of them very real. Archetypal, not universal.

So when the plot of Una's story came to me, I decided to write her as honestly as I possibly could. Who was I around eighteen/nineteen (so I looked back from the exulted maturity of twenty-one)? I was bored with my lot, looking for an exciting romantic interest to sweep in and solve all my problems. I fell in love too easily and had my heart broken more easily still. I gave my heart to a young man who told me to trust him, and I watched him forget this had ever happened and let others believe that I had made the whole thing up--thus making my subsequent depression seem like nothing more than an overblown reaction to my friends, many of whom thought I was delusional and spread gossip about me amongst each other. I became angry. Extremely, furiously, flamingly angry.

Yeah. I knew what being a dragon felt like.

So I wrote Una. I made her honest. I made her like me. I didn't just take one key struggle. I took a whole BUNCH of key struggles and combined them with a somewhat similar personality. I put me into her in a big way.

And to my surprise, I watched her become herself. Because again, the situation shaped her. And her situation, while reflective of mine and brutally honest, was significantly more dramatic and fantastic! So Una became uniquely herself. And she became universal.

Una is one of the most honest characters I have ever written. As a result, she is either beloved or reviled by readers--there's no middle ground where my foolish little princess is concerned!

Another character who was written with this method is Lady Leta from Dragonwitch. And, interestingly enough, Leta is the other female character besides Una who gets some pretty harsh criticism from the readers (though nowhere near as bad!). And she is, other than Una, the heroine most like me. Again, did I mention that using this method can create backlash? Writing honestly is not always fun!

Rose Red and Imraldera were also created with a more mild variation on this method. But really all of my characters are made up of such a hodge-podge of these various methods, it's impossible with most to single out one method that was used.

But Una, as my first major heroine written since high school, was definitely created using this Personality Method . . . it was the only method I knew how to handle at the time! And it's a great one, particularly when paired with others.


Sarah Bailey said...

I'm sorry if you've taken some of our comments in the wrong way, Anne. I've been writing novels for over a decade and know what it's like to write brutally honest characters; your work and these articles have helped clarify how I look at my characters and inspired me to become a better writer. :)

Don't take this wrong, but if other writers wish to mimic your methods, please take that as a sincere compliment! :)

Hannah said...

Your honesty is definitely one of the things that makes your books so special! And it's awesome to hear more about you--I wish there was a way to read that horrendous story by you and your friend! ;)

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

@Sarah Bailey--Oh, I am absolutely complimented! I simply don't want you writers to think I'm trying to tell you what to do. The writing life is a personal one, and there are many methods for achieving fantastic results! But yes, I am very much complimented if you find any of my particular methods helpful. :)

@Hannah--Oh, you definitely do NOT want to read that horrendous story! I believe a computer crash banished it from all history--though not from memory, alas! LOL.

ghost ryter said...

This is what stands out about your writing, that you make your characters real even when so many others books offer glossy, photoshopped images. Thank you so much for your honesty. : )

I find more and more of me going into my characters everyday. However, the characters in question usue end up bring my villains. Whoops. What dies that say about me? :D

Bookishqueen said...

I am doing a little of both methods in my stories right now.

One book I am writing, the characters deal with some of the struggles I have, though their personalities are nothing like mine. Then, in the other book, I have given characters some of my personality traits. (it was kind of funny to me when my mom read the first scene where a character showed up and that told me that he was the male me).

Sarah Bailey said...

Don't worry, I wasn't getting that vibe from your article at all :) you're just analyzing your writing methods, and I appreciate your willingness to share your talent :)

Meredith said...

Once again, a truly fantastic post and so very insightful. It means so much that you share such personal aspects of your writing craft with us. Thank you.

And, Una is absolutely fantastic! I relate to her so much, particularly her longings and frustrations. It makes me sad that so many people seem to dislike her, but perhaps they don't want to admit that, on some level, they do like and identify with her. Her story is unforgettable and so very endearing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being so honest when you make your characters, it really does add such life to the story.

I could not entirely relate to Una, me being an unromantic goat girl, she being a romantic princess. But she was so real, with her awkward moments we all know, and the way she bickered with her little brother, the way she had to find privacy to write... it made me enjoy reading about her.

Unknown said...

I really can't wait to try this method and the one you talked about in the previous post! I'm to that point in my writing where I don't really know where I want to go. That being said, I think that I'll probably find myself throwing any form of planning the story to the wind, use some of these methods, and just go for it! We'll just see where I end up! ;-) Until then, I've got an essay to write.... Thank you, Anne Elisabeth!

Unknown said...

I absolutely ADORE these blog posts! I will hopefully formulate a more coherent in-depth response later, but I wanted to let you know that Heartless will ALWAYS be my favorite book of yours. ALWAYS.

Because dear Una so embodies the human and godly desire to be cherished and loved by choice (a desire we share with our creator), and the timeless struggle with our stubbornness and our brokenness and the unfathomable depths of the Lord's love for us so individually...I don't think there's a book you could write that I would love more than Heartless, not because I don't adore your other books to death, but because there is simply no higher regard I could possibly hold for a work of creative fiction.

To put it simply, I keep all my books in pristine condition, and you can easily see that fact simply by looking at my bookshelf. Out of all the neat, clean books, Heartless's pages are yellow from use. Not an ounce of hyperbole there. :)

--Melanie J.

Unknown said...

Anne Elisabeth, thanks so much for sharing your stories! <3

Personally, I loved Leta--out of all of your heroines, I think she reflected my inner struggles the most. The struggle of being heard and speaking without apology. I still struggle with that so much. So thank you for writing Leta (and Una, of course!) as she is--a character who should live without apology.

Sara said...

I've always loved your characters precisely because they are so deeply flawed. Una, Leta, and Lionheart are three that I relate to most closely, but I can see a little of myself in nearly every one of the characters. So you're doing your job very well!

Anonymous said...

You are one of the most fantastic authors ever

Anonymous said...

Great post! In most of the character's situations I would probably do exactly the same.

Unknown said...

Thank you again! This is inspiring and I like to see you pour so much of yourself in your work. I particularly liked Una because I identified with her. Before I read the book I had given my foolish young heart to a guy who later acted like he wasn't even a friend. While reading it I recognized her behavior as my own and it disgusted me. I hated her because in her I saw myself but at the end I wept because the same One who saved her saved me from my anger and bitterness resulting from my delusion. It is one of my favorites and made me want to devour the rest of your books which have strengthened me as well.