Creating complex characters with author Celine Jeanjean

Today, except for a brief ROW80 check-in at the end of this post, I’m turning the blog over to Celine Jeanjean, author of The Viper and the Urchin, for a discussion of character development. Celine’s book is full of well-drawn and memorable characters, and she offers some good tips below for how to make your characters shine as well.

And now, over to Celine…

When Denise asked me if I’d be up for writing a post about creating complex characters, I was so flattered! With that in mind, I’ve put together some of the things I did while building my characters, in the hope that it might be helpful. I focused specifically on two aspects: voice and dimensions.

Voice:

assassin_fullThe Viper and the Urchin is told from both Rory and Longinus’ points of views. Rory is a scrappy urchin girl, while Longinus is a fastidious and snobbish assassin who’s afraid of blood. Since they’re very different, I had to make sure their voices were just as distinct.

The first thing I did was play around with their language by creating a list of curses, slangs, and general expressions for each of them. I find language can be really helpful in showing a character’s personality, as well as where they’re from and the world they live in.

Most of the expressions didn’t make it into the book in the end, because the right conversations didn’t crop up, or because I made up others on the spot, but I found it a very useful way to start developing each voice in my head.

Once I had a bit of a feel for their voices, I wrote a synopsis of the story as if each character was sitting down and relating the story to a friend. This was a great way to ‘practice’ each voice, and it also enabled me to get to know their personalities a little better. Would they tell the story in a few sentences or go into blow by blow detail? Would they take creative license and play down certain aspects and highlight others? (Longinus’ creative license turned out to be pretty extensive!)

Dimensions:

I found the three dimensions of a character as outlined in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks incredibly useful as a base from which to develop Rory and Longinus. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, the dimensions are as follows:

1st Dimension: the surface and appearance of a character (they way she dresses, quirks, the way she talks, opinions, tastes, etc. Basically anything that can be perceived by an outsider)

2nd Dimension: the reason behind the choices and behaviours that define a character’s appearance – or the reason behind the character’s efforts to control her appearance. Backstory, agenda, etc, fall into that dimension.

3rd Dimension: what the character is like deep down, beneath it all (their moral compass, their soul.) The third dimension is usually revealed when the stakes and pressure are high and it doesn’t necessarily align with the first two.

Thinking about the layers of a personality in that way was really helpful in finding places to add conflict. A classic way to do this is to have the third and first dimension clash: the cad who turns out to have a heart of gold, or someone with the appearance of a hero/good guy who turns out to be a coward or a traitor.

Another way of introducing contrast within a character is by looking at the idea that appearance is driven by a combination of what a character thinks about herself and what she wants others to see. Those two things can be aligned, or they can be in contradiction. Especially if said character holds conflicting views about herself (as a lot – most? – of us do.)

For example in my case, Longinus is incredibly ashamed of his fear of blood, and deep down doesn’t feel like a good enough assassin – so he overcompensates by trying very hard to come across as the perfect gentleman assassin. He’s arrogant and superior, partly because he genuinely believes himself to be the best alchemist in town, as well as the best-dressed man, but also because it’s a comfort zone for him. It’s easier for him to be arrogant than to face his failings.

I found that adding contrast and delving into the why behind the quirks and outer traits helps makes them more than just a superficial, amusing details – it helps make them part of a more complete personality. Especially in the case of a humorous character like Longinus – spending time working out the reasons behind his many personality quirks stopped him (I hope!) from veering into the ridiculous, and made him a bit more complex.

So there you have it — I hope it’s been helpful. I don’t pretend this is the best way to go about creating characters but it certainly helped me with mine. If you disagree or if you use different methods when working on characters, I’d love to hear!

About Celine:

Celine Jeanjean PhotoCeline Jeanjean is French, grew up in the UK and now lives in Hong Kong. That makes her a tad confused about where she is from. During her time in Asia she’s watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat, lost her shoes in Vietnam, and fallen off a bamboo raft in China.

Celine writes stories that feature quirky characters and misfits, and her books are a mixture of steampunk, fantasy and humour.

To find out more about Celine or just to chat, visit her on:

Website: http://celinejeanjean.wordpress.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CelineJeanjeanAuthor

Goodreads:https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14128308.Celine_Jeanjean

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CelineJeanjean

Lastly, here’s my midweek ROW80 check-in

Writing: Wrote 4,008 words in Called by Magic. Did 45 pages of critique. Started a character voice journal for Called by Magic.

Reading: Finished reading Roz Morris’s Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Your Readers Captivated. Finished reading Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Just bought The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, so I might start that one today or continue reading The 10th Kingdom by Kathryn Wesley.

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop!

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10 thoughts on “Creating complex characters with author Celine Jeanjean

  1. I agree. Layers help me as well. For me I just think about their secrets, which I guess is similar to what you call the third dimension. Then as I write my story I just hint at those secrets without revealing them. Such fun!

    • As my characters deepen through the drafts, I love the secrets they reveal. Roz Morris used the phrase “secret wounds.” That describes it perfectly! I love getting to know my characters across multiple drafts and adding those layers.

  2. Such a nice, informative article 🙂
    I’m always at a loss at giving advice about creating characters, because my approach is quite instinctive and base on basically peeling off layer by layer while working at the plot (not a fast technique, I know). I really like your 3 dimentions, that’s to the point and objective, an advice that can be put to practice.

    I also really like your advice about voice.
    Because I’m not a native English speaker, I don’t have the ability to use voice the way I’d like. There are things I’d like my characters to express through dialogue, but I’m symply not good enough at writing that kind of voice. Which it’s a shame (well, that’s certainly how I feel), but I try to compensate to that through attitude.

    Enjoyed your story a lot, BTW 😉

    • Yay! So happy to hear that you liked the story!! 😀

      Using a character’s attitude to convey what you want would be great in terms of subtlety though. And I’m sure that given enough time you’ll get to a point where you feel more confident in your written English, and the voice issue will go away. It took me a long while before I was happy with my writing in English — now I would never consider writing in French, my French is so terrible these days!

    • It must be difficult writing in a language that’s not your first language. Kudos to you for doing it. And I agree with Celine. It will get easier as time goes on.

      So much of what we do as writers is intuitive, skills we’ve honed over many, many days of writing. I just read a book on dialogue that featured an entire chapter on weaving dialogue and narrative, something I’ve never really thought about because I just do it automatically. But for other writers, what comes naturally to me might be something they need to put more effort into. And something that comes intuitively to them might take me more conscious effort.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I like your way of looking deeper into characters. I spend a lot of time chatting with my characters and making them play in fanfiction worlds. It’s kind of silly, but it seems to work for me, just like your way works for you. Who knows though… you could have given me the perfect way to write my next story. Thanks, Celine!

    You’ve been super, awesomely busy, Denise. Yay you! Especially the 45 pages of critique (I always seize up when it comes to that… I always feel like I should dance around the mistakes for fear of hurting feelings or because I don’t feel ‘qualified’ to comment on someone else’s work).

    • I’m definitely going to try Celine’s approach as I do character development for my latest WIP, a series of novellas about two sisters.

      I’ve been doing critique since my senior year of high school, when I took my first creative writing class, so it comes fairly easily to me after all this time. I always start with the positive, what I really loved about the story. Then I move on to what needs work. That way my feedback is encouraging and constructive. I figure it’s easier for the author to hear it from me than to be rejected by an agent or editor.

      Thanks, Eden! 🙂

  4. That was an inciteful read, thank you Denise and Celine. I have some new processes to process 🙂 Sounds like a good week all around. How has Seraphina been for you?

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