Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guest Blogger: Characters or Story - Which Comes First? by Karen Cioffi

A number of articles about writing for children, and other genres suggest knowing your characters inside and out before beginning the story. In fact, information suggests that the author build the story around the characters once they are fully developed. While this is good advice, and many experienced authors recommend this technique, there are some authors who occasionally watch their characters unveil themselves right before their eyes.

This is such an interesting method of writing. Your character introduces himself and gradually reveals bits and pieces, and blossoms as the story moves along. Sometimes a story doesn't begin with this intent, it just happens. This is known as the seat-of-you-pants method of writing.

You do need to be careful with this method though, you may lose track of all the bits and pieces that make up the character. So, a good way to keep track of those quirky telltale marks, expressions, behavior patterns, and physical features is to note them on a separate page or character card as they become unveiled. You wouldn't want your character to have brown eyes in one chapter and blue eyes in another - unless of course, it's a science fiction or paranormal and part of the storyline.

So, is there a right or wrong answer to the question of which comes first, characters or story? That depends on the writer.

While it may be important to know your characters, and even have a family and background established for them, even if they are not used in the story, you can also become acquainted as you go along. As your story develops you may find out if the character is fearful in certain situations, or if he is heroic. Sometimes it's impossible to know this about a person, let alone a character, until circumstances create the possibility of the question.

It is one's environment and circumstances that help develop his or her characteristics, fears, hopes, and so on. The same holds true for your character.

Using an example: How would a child who never saw a mouse before react to one? There's no way to answer that question until it happens. So, having the story help develop the character can be a useful tool. But, again, be sure to keep track of all the new features your character unveils along the way.

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Morgan Mandel said...

That's an ageold question for authors. I usually get a spark of an idea before starting a story, then figure out what kind of characters would work best in it. That's a good idea about marking the character quirks on a list to keep track. I keep forgetting about give them distinquishing characteristics, which is so important.

Morgan Mandel

Nicole weaver said...

Thanks for posting such a great article. Karen, you hit the ball out of the park. This information is very valuable , especially for a novice writer like myself. Mil merci, mil gracias, a thousand thanks!

Nicole Weaver

JM said...

If I had waited with my last novel until I fully knew my MC, I probably would have been too bored with it to write it! I had a very shy MC who only fully bloomed when I put her in places and situations that challenged her. I don't think I could have gotten to know her quite so well any other way.

Karen Cioffi said...

Hi, All,

It's funny, but I don't think I've ever started a story knowing the ins and outs of my characters. :)

Thanks Mayra for featuring my article!


Cheryl said...

I'm like you Karen, most times my characters are developed first and then they tell me their stories. The only time that didn't happen was with Little Shepherd, and I struggled to figure out what Obed's conflict was because I didn't know him well enough first.

Thanks for another great article.


Ellen said...

Interesting article. I never thought much about how a character was developed. Learn something new every day!

Turning the Clock Back said...

Great article! For me, I have to really engage with the character or the story really doesn't hold my interest. So, I would think that character development should come first to draw me in. Then, once Im hooked...present the story!

Anonymous said...

Interesting guest post!

Karen Cioffi said...

Hi, All, just like everything else, every author has their own way of creating their characters.

Cheryl, I think when your basing a character on an already existing person from the Bible or elsewhere you would need to know the character in order to write about him/her.

Thanks everyone for stopping by!

April said...

What a delightful post! I have often heard, from different authors, that the characters will "take them over" and they are the machine that writes the story for them. I think that is so cool. Everyone has different ways of doing things and whatever works the best is the way to go!