Monday, February 18, 2013




Or: 5x5

For the next couple of weeks, I'll be blogging about Characters, development, types, and different ways to tighten your WIP from the characterization point of view. 

From my experience Betaing and working with other writers, "Characters" is one of the most difficult things to talk about or change in a WIP. It might be because, if plot is the backbone of a story and pacing is the heartbeat, the main character is the soul. 


Let's put our yoga pants on and get metaphysical.

You might have seen the phrases "character-driven" and "plot-driven" stories. Or MICE quotient (Milieu vs. Idea vs. Character. vs. Event). No matter what kind of story you have, the reader's interest in your story, the compulsion to turn the page, rests on how much they care about your Character. 

This is because the Main Character is your reader's proxy, or avatar, in your story. In other words, the reader experiences your story through the Main (or POV) Character. Which means that the Character must be, at the most basic level, relatable enough for his or her choices to make sense. The reader should know, at the very least, enough about your character to empathize with and understand why they choose to Pursue Questline or Solve Mystery or Desire Love Interest. 

Which means you, the writer, must know the Character better.


The Speed Date:
When you're on a speed date, you have anywhere from five to ten minutes to "get to know" the person sitting across from you. You can ask the five W's: 
Who, What, Where, When, Why.

Who are you? (In literary fiction, this could be as shallow as "Who are your parents?" which could lead to something as deep as "Who are you in relation to the universe?")

What are you? (In fantasy, this could literally be "What race are you?" or broadly "What is your socio-economic status/ occupation in the realm?")

Where are you? (In a mystery, it could be as plain as "Where can you use your skills best?" or as challenging as "Where would you be the most powerless?")

When are you? (In any fiction, this could be as basic as "When did you come into existence?" or  as specific as "When did your involvement change the outcome of the story?")

Why are you? (The greatest questions one can ask in Speed Dating, and while working on the first five pages of the WIP: "Why you and not someone else?" "Why are you so special?" and "Why are you here?")

Try to answer each question with Specific and Unique Details. 

You can do something as simple and direct as jotting these down on index cards or as involved as creating entire backstories.

Choose the method which works for you, but the one I've found to be most useful is to answer all five questions on one page. Then put these into a binder, and this creates your Character Manifesto. I call it the 5x5 (Five by five. If you're a fan of Whedon, this should be familiar to you. It's shorthand for a transmission's signal strength and clarity, with five the highest possible rank. This should help you focus your revising on honing your characterization's "strength and clarity" - How strong is your character's impression on the reader? How clear are your character's truths?). Refer to it as you revise.

Should you Tell your reader all this information within the first five pages? Oh hell no.

Show them. 

Here's some example Speed Dating Answers:
Who: The son of two low-caste drug addicts, who sold him to a Seed Importer.
What: Now he's a fey-hunter.
Where: He grew up in the trendy skyways of Han-ji Metro.
When: Obviously, some not-too-distant future.
Why: This is his story, he is the main character, he has the most to lose in almost all the scenes, and he has to hide the fact that his birth parents were low-caste drug addicts from his friends in Han-ji and his fellow fey-hunters.

Who: Eldest daughter of Court-Officer Yun-tze.
What: Leader of Jack's squad.
Where: She grew up and trained in the austere, severe monasteries of Dasgada's smallest moon.
When: Same timeline as Jack.
Why: For a secondary character, the question would be: "Why are you helping/hindering/antagonizing my main character?" Wen-Ai's answer: She feels Jack gets distracted too easily, doesn't know why, and fears it will endanger everyone else under her command.

Knowing the five W's of these two characters will help shape and refine how they react or act in all their scenes. 

Which one of them would saunter and which one would stride?
How would the way Jack say "It's not my fault," differ from how Wen-Ai would say it?
Who would be more likely to want to stop in the middle of a raid and look at shoes in a store window?

How your characters react and act will Show your reader the background information that you, the writer, already know.

If you had issues answering any of the Speed Dating questions, spend some time on it before you revise your WIP. Because if you don't know the answer, how can you expect the reader to?

The best way to know if your Characters – and therefore, your story – are coming across the way you intend is to have a Beta reader go over the WIP and see if any of their critiques can be answered by Showing one of the answers in your Speed Dating list.

Frex: A Beta might comment "This doesn't seem like something Wen-Ai would say" to the line "It's not my fault!" 

Applying the answers to Wen-Ai's Speed Dating Where and Why could change the line to: "It's not one person's fault, Commander," said Wen-Ai, silencing Jack with a look. "We go in as a team, we return as a team."

*** ETA: 2/20/13

For a more involved take on finding your Character's Voice, check out this post "How Do You Find a Character's Voice?" on Nat Russo's blog, A Writer's Journey.

He's a friend and fellow tweeter known as @NatRusso. Follow him for daily #writingtips and #grammartips.

Some more fun resources on how to "Get to get to know your characters."
Caveat! These can be HUGE time consumers. Remember your priorities and judge for yourself whether or not these help or hinder you.

Mary Sue Questionnaires:

Character Interview

Lastly, if you can get your hands on a complete Scientology Stress Test, you can try taking it from the POV of your characters. 

Happy Writing,
Coming Up:
More Character.
Dialogue Tags
Robert Bevan 
Nat Russo
Laura Oliva

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