Writing Characters: Layer ‘Em Like an Onion

When it comes to writing my characters, I’m all about layers. Occasionally, I’ll dive in and start writing scenes, especially ones I’ve been excited to write, but I like knowing my characters and how they’d react in their situation. One of the main reasons Lucy of Gifted is 21 years old is because I knew I couldn’t make her under 21–specifically because Lucy would never have the balls to sneak into a beer and drink underage. Lucy is brave, but not reckless (not usually, anyway) and is all about abiding rules and laws.

https://i1.wp.com/www.digitalmediafx.com/Shrek/Images/Shrek10big.jpg

Shrek, the original onion layer, agrees that layers make a character.

For whatever reason, Gifted sort of simply came together for me. I mean, I worked hard on it and edited thousands of times to tie up all my loose ends, but sometimes it simply wrote itself through my fingers, my subconscious secretly piecing things together without my even realizing it. More importantly, the characters were almost a no-brainer. I knew almost immediately who they were, their roles in the story, what they looked like, and how their relationships with Lucy would evolve. I knew exactly how each person would react in any given situation. They were already old friends of mine and they nearly jumped off the page for me. I only had one major change with the characters–Renata, the Earthshaker we see a handful of times throughout, was actually a main player. I decided there were already lots of characters, so I scooted her to the background (though I kept in her big moment during a fight scene). After a while (like after the 2nd draft), I finally wrote everything down about the characters–their families, tics and habits, all of it. I made sure I knew those guys inside and out. And it took several layers that even led me to their secrets I might not have found otherwise had I not dug a little deeper.

When I say layer a character, I mean that’s my method of writing. I’d been having some difficulties with the WIP lately. When working on SuperNova, I couldn’t figure out why I was having such a blasted hard time with the characters. I could picture them in my mind, but I didn’t know them yet. Every scene I wrote sounded flat because despite my physical movements and settings, the voices were simply neutral. I could’ve traded them in for anyone. The last thing I want is Nova getting confused for Lucy. So last week, I took a step back and realized I’d skipped a step that I didn’t really have to do for my Gifted characters right away. I’d been so worried about getting the story out on paper that I didn’t take a good look at my characters, didn’t interview them or consider their thoughts and feelings.

Once I sit down to write characters, I spend pages and pages with them. Unless I’m acknowledging a relationship with another character in the book (brother/sister, love interest of, etc), the sole focus is that one person. I don’t just write about their appearance or how they react to things; I write about their fears, their insecurities, what makes them happy, their hopes and dreams, the tiny scar they have on their knee from 5th grade baseball, and so much more. I round out possible scenarios that I’ve outlined for the story and as I ask questions, I answer them along the way, cleaning up the loose ends that might be somewhere in the manuscript. For example, when writing about a new character, Penelope:

“Penelope Warner [age, physical description, role in story]…She’s younger, so more prone to jealousy and childishness…she’s bored and wants to stir up action…if [situation] occurred, she would [action]. When she first meets Nova, she thinks [thought]. How does she see her brother? When they are together [she acts this way], but if [character/situation] were to happen, maybe she’s [action].”

Sorry, I know that’s like the world’s worst Mad Lib, but you probably get the general idea (plus I know all the answers to those questions and I refuse to give spoilers before the first draft is even done!) 🙂 Once I’m done with the first layer, realizing who they are, I can move on to the next: placing them in scenes. Because I’ve already set up everything, I add in specifics, such as their facial expressions (reactions), tics (like Lucy’s finger tapping), or emotional reactions (Delia’s cookie problem). I also get little ideas within those scenes on how to move forward. Sometimes I get thrown for a loop, but often it leads to a helpful dose of detail later on in the book.

I have no doubt that layering sounds a little strange to some, just as other techniques might baffle me. However, it’s working for me in this strange little system. It’s like I’ve put all the ingredients together and now it’s time to bake the cake (I’ve got dessert on the brain). The point is, no matter how a writer composes their story, it’s important for us to know our characters inside and out. When they talk to you, write everything down! It doesn’t matter if family history or a random event in their life doesn’t make the cut–it makes the characters who they are. Those ideas shape them just as any of our pasts shape us. Brainstorming is fun and you’ll put all the pieces together eventually. Even if the details don’t make it into the story, it helps us to create our world and its people.

3 thoughts on “Writing Characters: Layer ‘Em Like an Onion

  1. Vickie Ramage (@ComaCalm) says:

    This is amazing. I’m writing a book at the moment, an idea I had a few days ago and I haven’t started actually writing the chapters yet. I’ve been trying to flesh out everything before diving in, getting to know my characters etc. and this has really helped! I’m going to spend my morning really getting to know them.

    • LizLong says:

      Awesome! I read everywhere to “interview” them–down to the last detail, you can figure out who they are by continuously asking them questions. It’s a huge help! I’m so excited to meet your characters!!

      • Vickie Ramage (@ComaCalm) says:

        I’m terrible with writing – I can’t tell if it’s actually good or not because I’m my own worst editor – I pick at EVERYTHING. So I could be terrible. I can say that the first character I ‘layered’ is blonde with green eyes, she lives with her Grandmother and she loves meeting new people, due to working in an antiques shop. However, having grown up in a small town, she balks at major changes and has no plans after school for leaving the small town. Oh and she has a scar near her elbow from the time her gay best friend pursuaded her to skateboard with him. XD

        If I finish this book it’ll be a miracle. Random tip for people like me who are designing their own covers – when I was creating my characters they mostly created themselves but I also looked on Stock image sites and saved the people I would use as a cover image. So then I can mold their descriptions around the images and it feels more authentic to me. Well, I really rambled here didn’t I…

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