Au Contraire workshop – Nicole Murphy on characterisation

This workshop write up is a bit slimmer than the others because we spent time doing exercises.

To this workshop we brought a character from our own work that we were struggling with and Nicole showed us a number of exercises we could do to explore the character and hopefully develop them more fully. We talked a little bit about our characters. I chose Jake from Rain. I worry that he is a bit on the two dimensional side and I want to make sure he is more real.

We did a worksheet exercise here, filling out details for our character. Some of the boxes had things I wouldn’t have thought of un-prompted such as Spiritual beliefs (which is quite complicated for Jake as it turns out), Education/Job (education was patchy, but he did study through high school), Loves/Hates (loves to win, being the one who knows things and his big brother/hates people who get away with bad things, hypocritical behaviour and ghosts) and Hobbies (collects exorcism stories in his journal). I was surprised, while filling this sheet out, with how much I did know about Jake. I was remembering little moments in various scenes from the book and what it meant about him. So although I felt a little bit like I was back in school it was a helpful thing to do. I ended up writing all over the margins with complicated details of his family background and what it meant for how he acts now.

The first impression you get of someone is physical, you see what you see. Then as you talk to someone you get details of their personality.

Ways to go deeper with a character: think about why you love them (if you do), ask what their motivations are, think about details of their background (esp childhood and adolescence), this is where they have come from after all.

Nicole mentioned that one of her ways of finding names is to look for the meanings of names first. Figure out what traits define your character and then find a name that means something like that.

Nicole asked us to think about the most interesting people in our actual lives. What is it about them that is so interesting? How are they thinking what they are thinking?

There was a bit of discussion about what makes fictional characters more compelling. Heroes with elements of evil in them, for example, or someone who is doing good in spite of himself. (Han Solo was mentioned as an example.) The way the character relates to the setting can give them more depth. How do they interact within society? What are the implications of what they do within the world?

Some exercises/tools for getting inside a character’s head.

If you can’t work out how your character will react to something, try interviewing them. Like, think up some questions and ask the character. Apparently Nicole did this once and got through some writer’s block. It’s especially good if you can make the interview itself important to the story (debrief after a mission, for example). Think hard about what question(s) your character will not want to answer.

Try writing your character’s CV, or filling out a census for them. Even a quiz from a magazine, as the character.

Think about what your character’s star sign is and use the recommended traits for that sign to flesh them out.

Write a random scene of your character interacting with someone else. (I did this one, a flash back with Jake at 13 and his big brother. I quite liked it.)

You need to be able to demonstrate character in the frame of your story by showing how the character acts, reacts and interacts. Do not just spell it out for the reader. One suggestion for checking this from another person in the workshop was to use Ctrl + F and search for ‘was’. If you’re using it to describe something (Jake was sad) then you should probably take that out and replace it with an action that shows what they are.

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