Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Best of the Archives: Getting Into Character

Due to unforeseeable circumstances our post scheduled for today has been removed. Apologies to Jolene Navarro and Alexandra Sokoloff. 

This post by Tina Radcliffe first appeared in Seekerville on 

August 20, 2015. Comments are closed today so we can catch up on
our reading and writing!

When this post came out in 2015, I was working on the fifth book in the Paradise, Colorado series, Rocky Mountain Cowboy. This is Joe Gallagher's story. Joe is the big brother of Dan from Stranded with the Rancher.  

The date has changed but the process is the same. I am currently working on book three of my new series Big Heart Ranch which will debut in December, with Claiming Her Cowboy.  It features more wonderful strong, silent and soulful COWBOYS!

I like the idea of getting into the head or the boots of a cowboy, most who are men of few words. And those words tend to be to the point. Even if that point hurts. 

Why does a writer get into character? We do this so our readers will relate to our protagonist/s. So they care. We want them to care enough to continue to turn the pages and to think about our characters after the book has ended.

But how does a writer get into character?

 I've invited a few of my friends to share their methods with you.

Getting to know my characters is fundamental to my writing process. I cannot write them until in my head they "live, move and have their being." To facilitate this, I fill out a character profile on each major character—kind of like what I'd want to know if I were going to date them. I find photos—actors work best in terms of picture availability—that match the character forming in my head with someone I can study on screen for mannerisms that will make my characters come to life on the page. Then, I take my characters with me wherever I go—to the grocery store, car pool, church, etc . . . I try to see the experience through their eyes, not my own. By the time I've finished this "research phase", I know my characters well enough that I'll know their favorite hymn and what "moves" them. Finally, once they've completely jelled, I start writing. My final step will sound weird—but the normal ship sailed without me a long time ago. Utilizing a signature character fragrance found in lotions, soaps or candles, I'm able to quickly step into their essence and write their story each day. 

Before I write a story, I need to know the characters, especially their internal conflicts and any fears or secrets they might be hiding. Often they've been wounded, sometimes by a misconception, sometimes by a lost love, sometimes by a mistake they've made. Seeing life through the lens of that wound creates a false self, what screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge calls a false identity. Once I understand my characters' brokenness and the baggage they carry, I'm ready to begin my story. 

Debby Giusti-Person of Interest

The easiest and fastest way for me to get into my characters head is to take a walk. The walking is enough activity to keep the left brain occupied so my creative right brain can get into it.  Then I walk and picture myself in their world and imagine their reaction to it.  Other tricks I use:  I have photos of each main character and a list of their flaws, their goals, wants, needs, etc.  I can quickly glance at that list and photo and picture their character. 

I ask myself what the character is feeling. If I can write realistic emotions, then the rest usually falls into place. If I'm having a particularly difficult time with a scene, I stop writing in narrative form and start making lists. I'll go back and list everything that's happened to my character recently and then write down some basic emotions. "Elise is feeling angry because..., so that anger is going to come out when she..." I'll make a list of the things I want her to feel and unique ways to describe those feelings. I'll also make a list of descriptions to sprinkle in. I work right on through the five senses and then add the sentences I come up with to bland spots in the scene.

Naomi Rawlings-Love's Unfading Light

To write my characters' stories I must know their back story inside and out. Once I have a handle on what they’ve experienced and the difficulties that’s caused, they become very real to me. When writing their story, I feel what they’re feeling, as I would feel the heartache and joy of a dear friend. I don’t use music, fragrances or pictures to trigger them. The fastest way for me to get into their story is to read the previous scene. If that fails, I reread the profile I created that includes everything of importance I know about them. Not what they like for breakfast, but vital stuff like their wounds and issues—Jeff Gerke calls these the poison or knots that keep them from changing—their strengths, goals, and motivations. Once I’m engaged by what makes them tick and what they want and why, I’m ready to travel their bumpy road, showing their view of their world--often a skewed view--through their senses and reactions. When I find myself speaking their dialogue as I type, I know I'm connected.  

Well, since I AM a character, it’s pretty easy for me to get inside my characters’ heads, especially the quirky ones like Charity O’Connor.I find that brainstorming on the treadmill works wonders in this regard because once my feet are flying, the dialogue does too, and nothing gets me into character faster than writing dialogue. Another thing that helps, crazy as it sounds, is a hand mirror. I keep one close so I can act out character expressions and personalities. Sometimes I even try to emulate people/characters I love and relate to. For instance, my disfigured, sweet and shy heroine Emma Malloy was actually modeled after Francine Rivers’ amazing Hadassah heroine from the Mark of the Lion series. A poor imitation, I realize, but Francine’s depiction really helped me shape Emma and get inside her head. 

Julie Lessman-Grace Like Rain (With This Kiss Historical Collection)

Desperate love of freedom... and an even more desperate yearning to put the past behind her. That's how I got into character for Magdalena Serida, my church-sponsored Chechen refugee in "Refuge of the Heart". War can take a normal person and push them to unheard extremes, but inside they're still that normal person. I had to envision every decision, every emotion from both angles. How would Lena react to this? And how would a war-torn tortured soul see it? And each action then had to embrace both sides. A woman at odds with herself, faced with new chances. Reading about the Chechen insurgency and following news clips on the Internet helped me shape her past, but pretending to be Magdalena helped me mold her future.

Ruth Logan Herne-Refuge of the Heart

The way I get into a character's head the quickest is to focus on three Ps: picture, profession, and personality. What a person looks like, what s/he does for a living (paid or unpaid) and what traits s/he possesses can tell me a lot about her/him. I find a picture of a person that looks like my character and keep it handy. Is s/he tall or short, attractive or plain? Does s/he have any distinctive markings, features, etc. that would affect her/his way of relating to others?I use metaphors, similes, language, etc. that someone in my character's chosen profession would use.  If there's a particular jargon associated with the profession, I work those words into my character's thoughts and dialogue. I keep my character's personality in mind and think about how that would affect her/his choices, actions, speech, etc. Is s/he serious, silly, snarky or sweet? 

I often do a mix of things to get into a character’s head:

Find a photo to keep their face/personality fresh in my mind

Give them a dominant characteristic and perspective on the world that colors their thoughts (a Wyoming rancher is very likely going to see some things differently than a big city surgeon)

Write a few  “first person” paragraphs from the character’s POV explaining to me their background, their goal, motivation & conflict, and their thoughts regarding their love interest. 

Sometimes I ask them questions--it’s amazing what your subconscious dredges up about the interior life of a character if he’s given the leeway to speak his own mind!

Writing the opening chapter helps solidify the character when I can see and hear him/her in action.

In the course of getting to know my hero/heroine, I usually zero in on a few key likes/dislikes. I find a favorite (or in one case hated) food. I also tend to associate a scent. And I always (ALWAYS) have a playlist with songs specific to the characters and the book. The playlist is key because once I put that on, I'm in the story. The songs are so familiar to me that my brain tunes out the words, but the tune keeps me grounded in the story and in character. For my upcoming release, Christmas in Hiding (LIS, October 2015), I focused on Christmas scents and foods. If I needed to get into character, I brewed a cup of peppermint tea and had a chocolate cookie with it. Often the tea grew cold as I wrote, but the scent was there to remind me. I also had a sachet with a balsam scent that kept me in the Christmas spirit. Ironically, I didn't use Christmas music while writing this book. My heroine, Callie, loves the song "How Great Thou Art." I had that on constant repeat as I wrote. It never failed to put me in Callie's head and heart.

As for me (Tina here), well, the first draft of getting into character utilizes Michael Hauge's, The Hero's Two Journeys techniques. Hauge says that our number one job is to draw the reader into the world we have created by identification. How do we help the reader to identify or empathize with the character? By giving them at least two of the following:

1. Make the character the victim of some undeserved misfortune.
2. Put the character in jeopardy. 
3. Make the character likeable.
4. Make the character funny.
5. Make the character powerful.  

Second draft and each one after that is where I really dig in and channel my characters. Yes, really, channel them. Go ahead and think about walking a mile in your character's moccasins. Whatever gets you in their head and into deep point of view.

A quick refresher on deep point of view. 

"Deep Point of View was a phrase that I came up with when I was trying to explain my writing style. Point of view can be subjective (picture a hand-held camera on top of a character's head) or objective (picture something like a security camera, bolted into place in the corner of a room). In my books, I use subjective point of view, but I'm not satisfied with merely showing the reader what that camera sees from its perch atop a character's head. I bring the camera down, inside of that character's head, so we see the world through that character's eyes. We hear things through his ears. We smell what he smells, feel what he feels, think what he think. With deep POV, I write using words that that character would use. I tell the story with that character's voice. "

 Suzanne Brockmann

Now that you have methods for getting into character, I want to show you what happens when you get into character. Pick any Keeper book on your shelf and chances are the author is terrific at characterization. These are books you read over and over again because you know the characters inside and out. 

Successful characterization is when the author channels the character and the reader is willingly dragged along for the ride.

Taking it a step further, experience-taking is a term coined by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby that refers to relating to a literary character and changing our behavior and thoughts to reflect the fictional character. 

Here are some examples of authors who know how to get into character. They put you right in the scene. 

The Python turned slowly in his chair, and Annabelle felt as if she'd been punched in the gut. 

He was square-jawed and tough, everything about him proclaiming a brash, self-made man, a roughneck who'd flunked charm school the first couple of times around but finally got it right on the third pass. His hair was thick and crisp, its rich color a cross between a leather portfolio and a bottle of Bud. He had a straight, confident nose and bold dark eyebrows, one of which was bisected near the end with a thin pale scar. The firm set of his well-molded mouth proclaimed a low tolerance for fools, a passion for hard work that bordered on obsession, and possibly-although this might be her imagination-a determination to own a small chalet near St. Tropez before he was fifty. If it weren't for a vague irregularity to his features, he would have been unbearably gorgeous. Instead, he was merely drop-dead good-looking. What did a man like this need with a matchmaker?

Susan Elizabeth Phillips-Match Me If You Can

She looked up-and up again-into his face. The Phoenix website hadn't identified which PI held which credential, but based on this guy's polished clean-cut appearance-not to mention his authoritative bearing-she'd be willing to bet he was Secret Service. 

As for her plan to bolt ...she wavered as his eyes sucked her in. Dark as obsidian, they searched, discerned, and reassured all in the space of a few heartbeats, prompting her to draw three rapid conclusions. 

This was a man who would listen, evaluate, and come to sound conclusions.
This was a man who would treat her story with respect.
This was a man she could trust.

The silence lengthened, until the receptionist hidden from her view behind the PI's broad shoulders cleared her throat.

A fleeting frown marred the man's brow, then he released her hand, took a step back, and waited.

The ball was in her court.

Without overanalyzing her change of heart, she took a deep breath and tightened her fingers around the handle of her briefcase. "I can spare a few minutes."

Irene Hannon-Deceived

Reacher took a shuttle from the bus depot to the Portland airport and bought a one-way ticket on United to LAX. He used his passport for ID and his ATM card as a debit card. The one-way walk up fare was outrageous. Alaska Airlines would have been cheaper, but Reacher hated Alaska Airlines. They put a scripture card on their meal trays. Ruined his appetite. 

Airport security was easy for Reacher. His carry-on baggage amounted to precisely none at all. He had no belt, no keys, no cell phone, no watch. All he had to do was dump his loose change in a plastic tray and take off his shoes and walk through the X-ray hoop. Thirty seconds, beginning to end. Then he was on his way to the gate, coins back in his pocket, shoes back on his feet, Neagley on his mind. 

So what do you think? And what are your tips for getting into character?

One more challenge. Stop and think really quick about the hero and or heroine of one of the books on your Keeper shelf (including a virtual Keeper shelf).  Or a memorable secondary character. I bet you remember their names without looking.

Tina Radcliffe gets into character often. She writes inspirational and sweet romance with a kick of funny, from her home in Arizona. 

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