Chris Marie Green — on character

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The Character with No Name

A huge thanks to Faith Hunter for inviting me to be here during January. :)  I’m excited to hang out with you all, discussing writerly things with writerly people. Since I’m back “in the writing cave” after the holidays, I need the social contact!

Today I get to talk about craft—creating a character, to be precise. And I’d like to focus on one of my characters in particular. As luck would have it, Faith, who is making a wonderful habit of issuing fantastic invitations to me, asked me to write a novelette for an anthology she was editing called Kicking It, and after I jumped at the opportunity, I settled down and wondered what (and who) I was going to write about. An established character from a series I’d already published? A new character altogether? Or a spin-off character who previously played a supporting role in a series? Honestly, I’d just gone to New Orleans, and I’d come up with about ten story ideas there, but I wasn’t sure who would star in any given plot.

But before I even started to tangle with that question, I realized that novelettes aren’t exactly…long. We’re talking under 14,000 words here! Since Kicking It is an urban fantasy collection, how could I present a fully formed character while jumping right into some dark action and paranormal adventure in a short format?

Then the answer hit me—if my character had amnesia and she woke up in a strange bed in a strange room not knowing who she was or why she was there, I could avoid a lot of backstory and get right into the action. Nice! The reader would be discovering the ins and outs of my character right along with the character herself. (Hence, the title of the story, “The Girl with No Name.” Tah-dah!)

Problem one down. But the main question still remained—who was this mysterious girl without an identity? I decided to go with a spin-off character from my Vampire Babylon series. (I won’t get into spoiler territory here, so I’ll keep her name out of it. <G>) Then I matched her up with the one thing every novelette in Kicking It required—a pair of paranormally inclined shoes or boots. So Girl with No Name woke up wearing a pair of odd boots that resembled vines, and she couldn’t pry them off her legs. Based on some vague memories, she also wasn’t sure if these boots, which seemed to give her some interesting powers, might belong to someone who wanted them back. Badly.

Great. So I had a situation and I had a character. But this character would need to be a “reboot” of herself. (Yeah…hah-hah. Get it?) Because of her fate in the Vampire Babylon stories, she was in dire need of a fresh start, and that gave me the chance to build a character who has some significant baggage and backstory while reshaping her during this new, life-changing experience she goes through in Kicking It. In effect, she was close to being a new character.

So I did what I always like to do when discovering who my character is.

First, I charted out her goals, motivations, and conflicts (external and internal). (If you’re unfamiliar with this process, I highly recommend Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.) Then I dove into a list of interview questions that I ask all my main characters:

*What does she do for a living?  Why?

*What’s her family like and how does her upbringing affect her now?

*What is her worst fear?  (This one always figures into the plot because the worst fear is always realized by the end of the story.)

*What kind of clothing does she wear?  Why?

*Any distinguishing physical characteristics?

*Body type?  How does she feel about her body?

*What is her favorite saying/motto?  (This is usually the character in a nutshell. Maybe it’s a cliché, like “What comes around goes around.”  Or maybe it’s something different, like “Screw me once, yay for me.  Screw me over, you’re gonna pay.” I would have to say that Girl with No Name embraces the latter motto. <G>)

*What kind of hobbies does she have?  (Anything quirky?  How do these round her out as a person?  Any evidence of them in her home or workplace?)

*What would you have found written in her high school yearbook?  (What’s beneath her picture?  Any awards or dreams that have since died?  How did other people view her?)

*What is her love history?

*What would you find in her purse?

*What tangible object would symbolize her? (This could tie in with the theme of your story.)

*What kind of education does she have?

*Where does she live?  Why?

I’m sure you can think of a million more questions.  This process is sort of like playing Barbies or paper dolls for me—and I can still get away with it because “it’s my job.”  ; )

This list has served me pretty well, no matter what I’m writing: urban fantasy, dark fantasy, romance, or new adult. It even works for ghosts—and I say that because my main character for my new series that’s coming out February 4 is, in fact, a ghost, LOL. Jensen Murphy, Ghost for Hire, was murdered in the 1980s, and I if I had the power to invite her to dinner with Girl with No Name, I’d ask them a lot more questions that I haven’t even thought of yet.

What kinds of questions do you all ask your characters? (I’d love to add them to my list!)

 Chris Marie Green/Crystal Green 
The She Code
www.chrismariegreen.com  
bio:       VB book photo

Chris Marie Green is the author of ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG, the first book in the Jensen Murphy, Ghost for Hire series from Roc, which features a fun-loving spirit from the 80s. She also wrote the urban fantasy Vampire Babylon series from Ace Books

She tries her best to avoid international incidents whenever she takes a break from her first love, writing, and cheats on it with her other true love—traveling. She has alter egos named Christine Cody, who wrote the dark fantasy Bloodlands trilogy, and Crystal Green, who likes to write romance.

You can find her at www.chrismariegreen.com or hang out with her online at https://twitter.com/ChrisMarieGreen and http://www.facebook.com/chrismariegreen.

social media: 
Blog http://crystal-green.blogspot.com/ 
Website www.chrismariegreen.com 
Pinterest:  http://pinterest.com/chrismariegreen/ 
goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/785690-chris-marie-green 
twitter: https://twitter.com/ChrisMarieGreen 
FB: http://www.facebook.com/chrismariegreen  

Upcoming book: Only the Good Die Young cover

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17 comments to Chris Marie Green — on character

  • Razziecat

    Hi, Chris! I love the idea of starting out with a character who has no memories (or few). What I love best about writing is that my characters often surprise me – they do things and reveal things that I hadn’t planned. It would be fun to try this and see what turns up ;)

    I tend not to do a lot intentional backstory, although every character I come up with has one or two major things that made them who they are and put them in the situation I’m exploring. It seems that when I try to answer specific questions, my mind goes blank and my characters clam up. Once I get into a story (usually by writing bits of backstory that occur to me), I start seeing clues to things like body type, love history, education, family, etc., and then I can start making notes. Even so, now and then a character totally surprises me with a trait that I had no idea he/she had until the situation demanded it.

  • CMGreen

    Hi, Razziecat! It sounds like you’re a pantser. :) I know a lot of others who are, too. There are some books that I don’t plot out as much and I depend on “the writing discovery” process to help me flesh out every aspect of my story, too. Just have to go with the flow.

    Happy writing!

  • Welcome, Chris! That’s a very useful list. My experience is sort of like Razzie’s. I find out things about my character as I go along, kind of like an extended game of trait ping pong between my characters and the plot, but I can’t seem to start with a list. It’s an exercise I’d love to try at some point, though. :)

    I am very intrigued by the amnesia angle for your story. I have a character who experienced amnesia following a kidnapping as a child, and one of the things she struggles with is the schism between the person she was and the person she’s become, when she finally gets her memory back seven years later. Not that one was good and the other bad, but trying to reconcile the two, trying to figure out who she is and what she really wants from life, drives her along in how she deals with the larger problems she faces in the plot.

  • peaster

    Loved the short story in Kicking It. One of the most novel approaches to a story I’ve seen in a while, with an excellent ending. It was the first of your works I’ve read but will not be the last. Thanks also for the extremely helpful posting on creating a new character. Glad you accepted the invitation to post and hope to see more from you in this blog.

  • Welcome Chris! I loved your story in Kicking It–the Vampire Babylon series is now on my TBR list.

    I actually spend a lot of time developing my characters. Maybe too much time, since that’s one of my favorite things to do. Your list of questions is similar to the ones I used for the WIP. In addition, I used some ideas I got from Laura Hayden’s “Left-Brain- Right Brain/Creativity Program” character profile. One of the ideas is to have the characters answer some interview questions themselves, things like “my pet peeve is” and “it would surprise people to know that I . . .” When I finished answering for the 4-5 major characters (including the antagonist), I found that the answers really showed all the characters’ voice. This really helped me flesh out the characters.

  • CMGreen

    Thanks, Laura, and your amnesia angle sounds like it provides a lot of meat for your story. Best of luck on it, and have fun!

    Peaster, thank you so much! :) You’ve already made my day, LOL. All the best this year.

    And thank you, too, SiSi! I like those questions you suggested–they’re going on my list. Happy writing.

  • Ken

    Welcome Chris!!! It’s great to see you here, thanks for taking the time to stop by and chat.

    I loved your list and I’m going to steal some of those questions for my own :)

    When I’m creating a character, I’ve got a character sheet that I start where I first dump everything I know about that character: Their name (if I’ve got it), looks, any distinguishing marks, age, etc. Purely the physical stuff. At this point, I also start thinking about what Jim Butcher calls traits and tags (A kick-ass pair of boots, for instance) that I’ll drop into the story every now and again so that the reader will associate those boots with that character.

    Then, I start asking deeper questions:
    What do you think of when you think about This Character?
    Describe This Character in a single word
    Describe This Character in 50 words
    Would This Character agree with your description?
    How would This Character describe themselves in 50 words?
    What are three things that are important to This Character and why?
    What do they want prior to the story starting?
    What do they want now that the story has started?
    What is between them and what they want?
    What are they afraid of?
    What are 3 things that they like to do?
    What is their favorite word?
    What is their least favorite word?
    What turns them on?
    What turns them off?
    What sound do they love?
    What sound do they hate?
    What job (other than their own) would they like to try?
    What job (other than their own) would they never like to try?
    What is their favorite food?
    What is their favorite curse word?
    (The last several questions, I’ve stolen shamelessly from Inside the Actor’s Studio)
    Now that I’ve finished my first draft of my WIP, I’m going to go back to that sheet and see what’s changed around what they want, etc.

  • sagablessed

    Welcome Chris and welcome to the MW family!! Glad you stopped by. I am totally using this list.
    Sound advice, and the back story shows us how it can be applied. Thoughtful and well done. You fit right in with our other contributors.
    Hope you will consider being a guest again.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Happy to see a new face and thank you for starting us off with such a thought-provoking post!

    For myself, I don’t seem to be very good at sticking to question-lists for character development, but I really like to see the list others use since they help me spark ideas for what I think will be important. The greatest-fear/greatest-hope questions are definitely ones that are always important, but the physical description ones seem to go in-and-out of style with me.

    My habit so far seems to mostly be to start off my MCs with a contradiction. Then most of my back-story and initial character building is focused on figuring out the whys and therefores of that contradiction. For example – Yaakehl is a resistance leader in a city where she is very much a foreigner; why is she invested in this struggle, and how has she made herself accepted by the people she leads?

    The characters I seem to struggle with the most are the villains. Do you happen to have particular questions that you find most helpful for your villains?

  • Welcome to the site, Chris. Glad to see you here and to have you kick off our new guest-author format here at MW. I do something similar with my characters — I refer to it as the ABCs of character: Attributes, Back story, Circumstance. But it winds up being much the same thing. Until I learn who my character is, I can’t do anything more with him or her. This is always where I start. Nice post. Thanks for sharing your approach.

  • CMGreen

    Wow, Ken, that’s fantastic. Thank you!

    Sagablessed, high compliments! Much appreciated, and I would love to be here again. :) I have posts here the next three weeks, but 2014 has a long way to go, and I’ll be stopping by whether I have posts or not.

    Hepseba, thanks, and what an interesting question about villains. Truthfully, I use the same questions for them since, in their own minds, they are just as justified as a heroine would be in their goals/beliefs. Maybe a good question to ask is how they see the heroine–how do they think they can take her down? Why? Actually, somewhere in my files, I do have notes from a workshop I once gave about villains. I’m not at home and they are physical notes (old school!) but that would make an interesting topic for another post… Hmm!

    David, I sure feel welcome! Thanks to everyone. And I hear you about feeling comfortable with your characters before you start. :)

  • Chris, thanks for being our debut author for the new year here at http://www.magicalwords.net. I love the Q&A you’ve come up with with, especially these:

    >>*What would you have found written in her high school yearbook? (What’s beneath her picture? Any awards or dreams that have since died? How did other people view her?)

    *What would you find in her purse?

    *What tangible object would symbolize her? (This could tie in with the theme of your story.)<<

    I never thought about the year book thing, and OMGosh — what's in *my* purse??? It says I am a pack-rat. So yeah — what does it say about a character? I like!

  • Cindy

    My purse contents don’t describe me at all. I am ruthless about keeping in minimal, but it is a good question.

    Chris, the story in “Kicking It” is the first I have read of yours. It didn’t end the way I expected, which is a compliment. :) Nice to have you here.

  • CMGreen

    Faith, thank you so much for asking me! This is *such* a great site and idea. I’m more than happy to be a part of it for January!

    LOL–my purse is probably just as ridiculous as yours. Whenever I clean it out (once a year), I’m like, “REALLY?”

    Cindy, cool! Thanks so much! I love that there are people who have read Kicking It. Faith is brilliant. :)

  • Ohmigosh! I’m not the only person who sits down with imaginary people and gives them a list of questions! Yay!
    In all seriousness, I have an extremely long list of interview questions, but the more interesting ones are:
    - Three things you like about yourself?
    - Three things you dislike about yourself?
    - Three things you fear?
    - Three things you don’t fear? (most interesting one really)
    - Three things people like about you
    - Three things people don’t like about you
    - If there was one thing you could change about your past, what would it be?

    Thanks for the great post. Welcome, Chris :-)

  • CMGreen

    Unicorn, those are great! I especially love the three things you don’t fear, too. Thanks!

  • Jeremy Beltran

    I am a pantser to the nth degree with the exception of my MC who (whom? I never did get that correct.) has invaded my dreams with nearly every little piece of his history. So before I was even able to put a single letter on the page I knew him inside and out and because of that I knew allot about his closes friends and family. Now I’ve written characters whose backstory came out slowly but this guy not only wants his stories told but he was determined I got him right. I had soooo many story ideas batting around in my head that I couldnt decide where to start so I went with what would be the second or third book in a series until I read your character creating idea and it hit me that the perfect way to tell his first story would be to give him amnesia and let him discover who he is through out it which would also allow me to trickle in the supernatural things about him as the story went on. I figured what would happen if I woke up in the middle of no where with super powers and no clue who I was? Throw in a few people trying to kill me, some comedy, maybe some sex, mix it together bake at 350 degrees and then serve up a tasty treat.