Hello, fellow digressors. Welcome to 2015! How have your first few days with the new resolutions been? Have you written the wrong date on very many checks yet? Myself, I've made a longer list of goals than I did for any previous year, and I expect to keep maybe half of them. Maybe. You know me -- I get distracted. There are too many shiny things in this world to have complete focus 100% of the time.
Anyways, this post was requested a month or two back by some writer friends on Facebook, and I'm finally getting around to writing it. As any writer knows, or figures out eventually, good character development is key to writing a good story. You can have a fascinating premise, a plot so twisted it looks like a big soft-serve pretzel that the dog mangled, and the writing skills of the most popular author in the world, but if your characters are flat, you're probably doomed. I'm sure there are exceptions, but in general, this holds true.
Why is this? Well, let me see what reasons I can think of off the top of my head:
1. If your reader doesn't care about your main character, why should they care about anything that happens to them? If the character is hit by a car, or their mother is kidnapped, or their dog dies, why does it matter? (Well, okay, everyone will always be sad if a dog dies. Bad example.) If they're not rooting for (or against) someone, they have no reason to care about anything that happens.
2. If your reader cannot connect with your characters, they will not connect to your story. My most effective marketing strategy has been a strange one -- in Go Teen Writers and other online circles, I will let my characters interrupt me in comment threads, I will talk about them, I will post quotes from them and discuss their quirks and deepest insecurities with other group members. People get to meet my characters, they grow to love them for their sense of humor, their intriguing backstory, or their habit of tripping over everything that crosses their path, and they say, "Hey, I love this character -- I want to read their story now." I don't even have to talk much about my ingenious (or dry) plots, my wordcraft, or anything else. People connect with the characters, and because of that, they connect (or want to connect) with my stories. It makes sense, really. While you read a book, most of the fun involved comes from hanging out with these characters, with living vicariously through them and rooting for them no matter what the plot throws their way. People may forgive a simple plot, a slightly cliched premise, or a less than dazzling writing style, provided they love the characters. To me, at least, the characters are what make or break a book. Everything else is secondary. If your characters are unrelatable or boring, you'll lose me pretty early on in the book. Make them interesting, and I'll be willing to trudge through a few more chapters of less than thrilling prose just to spend some more time with them.
3. Characters drive the plot. Now, the extent to which they do this will vary between stories. But ultimately, the book is driven by your main character's wants, fears, and deepest desires. A plot is only interesting if what happens in it matters to your main character/s. If they don't care, then your reader won't care, either, or else they'll find your character unrealistic or incongruous and not want to keep reading. Since, as stated above, half the fun of reading a book is that you get to live vicariously through the characters, what they feel is important. What they believe and how things affect them is important. If things don't affect them, they will seem inessential or detached, and that can be detrimental to your story.
Okay, I can only think of those three points right now, but suffice it to say, character development is extremely important. I might even go so far as to say that it's the most important part of the writing process. Think about your favorite book -- what was the plot? What verb tense did the author use? What was the message of the book? You'll probably remember most, if not all, of these. But what was it that made you love the book in the early days, when you first started reading it? Chances are that you connected with the characters, related to them in some way, or at least were intrigued by them. For many people, 'The Hunger Games' was interesting because of Katniss, because of her humanity and the struggles she overcomes throughout the series. People love 'The Hobbit' because of Bilbo Baggins and how, even as an ordinary hobbit who claims not to want any part in adventures, he goes so far out of his comfort zone and grows as a person throughout the experience. People love the characters, and so they love following their adventures. Add in a great premise, a plot that keeps you guessing, and some killer writing (literally or otherwise), and you've got the potential for a bestseller.
SO. Now that I've proven how much of a digressor I really am, I'll get to the original topic of this post: Insecurity Maps.
This was an idea I had recently, while thinking about one of my main characters' insecurities. It occurred to me that, while people knew about his occupation, his personality, and what other people thought of him, what he thought of himself was equally important. How a person views himself affects everything he thinks or does. A man who thinks himself very important will be more likely to assume that what he says is valid and as important as he is, and will be less likely to take the advice of others whom he deems less important than himself. On the other hand, a man who thinks of himself as worthless or beneath the notice of others might be likely to either draw less attention to himself, or to overcompensate by trying to make himself seem more important than he really is or to make himself feel more important. But at the core of it all will be his insecurities, his longing to be worthy of notice, and his belief that he never will achieve that level of worth. Because of these insecurities, he might either reject flattery because he thinks so little of himself, or accept it because it makes him feel important, depending on his personality. He may become either depressed or disproportionately angry when someone insults him, but he is unlikely to be completely unaffected, where someone with a high sense of self-importance will likely disregard the criticism because he does not think it is true. Personality influences the reaction, but insecurities affect the expression of personality.
Say someone is extroverted, but has a deep-seated feeling of being a joke to the opposite sex. They may appear confident to others, and converse with people of their own gender very easily, but when confronted by someone of the opposite sex, they will become uncomfortable. There may be many possible reactions to this, but they will all be based upon your character's discomfort and their desire to mask or get rid of that discomfort.
Insecurities run deep, and affect everything we do. Think about it. What's a deep-seated insecurity you've held for a long time? How much has it influenced your thinking and the way you've interacted with the world? I'd be willing to wager that it's had at least a moderate influence over you at some point in your life. I personally spent my high school years feeling as though I was beneath the notice of others, so I withdrew from them and found lots of little distractions to occupy me without interacting with people. Had I not been so insecure, I might have had more of a social life, and might not have gotten into writing or sketching or music as much as I have. The bottom line is, we all have insecurities, and most insecurities can be a significant influence on our choices in life and how our personalities develop.
So along with your character's personality, their positive or negative traits, or their upbringings, their insecurities are vital to understanding them and making them real to the reader. I personally cannot connect to characters who are never insecure about anything. They feel too "perfect," almost inhuman, because to be human is to be insecure about something.
Anyways, an Insecurity Map is basically just a graphic I create that records negative things my characters think about themselves, as well as things others have said to or about them that have seeped into their minds and now influence the way they live their lives.
(Disclaimer: I do not own the photos used in the maps. I retrieved most of them from Pinterest, and I claim no rights to them. I simply use them for private, non-commercial purposes in representing my characters.)
Jorthen Lavahr ('The Sehret Chronicles', High Fantasy)
Shaetha Sohran ('The Sehret Chronicles')
Sohrem Terahl ('The Sehret Chronicles')
Val(erie) Richards ('Distorted Dimensions', Contemporary Sci-Fi)
Is this the most effective method for thinking up and visualizing characters' insecurities? I have no idea. But it does help me. I look at this big, empty page with my character's face in the center, and I think, "I have to fill this page with as many of their insecurities as possible." This forces me to really examine the darkest crevices of my characters' souls, to remember situations in their lives that might have influenced how they viewed themselves, and to lay it all out in a succinct way. It's also a plus if I can summarize each insecurity in one word or phrase. For some, I could only pull a quote from another character that evoked a basic sense of the insecurity the character in question possessed. For example, a character's map might include the quote, "Why can't you just leave well enough alone?" I have a basic sense of how this might affect my character's view of himself/herself, but it is difficult for me to sum it up in one word. So in those moments where I feel I cannot summarize without obscuring my meaning, I just throw in a quote that gives the general idea. The point is to figure out what your character thinks of himself/herself and make it into a visual. You could also do this for positive things they think about themselves, I suppose, but since insecurities run so deep and affect so many facets of a person's being, I chose to make maps for them first.
So, how can you make one of these for yourself? Here are some basic instructions:
For a digitally-generated map like those pictured above:
1. Grab a background. This could be a normal photo, but that might be distracting. Your best bet is to grab some random photo (preferably high-resolution), take it over to a program like PicMonkey, and use the 'Canvas Color' effect to cover up the original photo with whatever color you think best represents your character. Or, you know, just black or white. Whatever works for you.
2. Choose whether or not to include a photo of your character, and use the 'Overlay' effect to add them to the map.
3. Start thinking. You might start with something as basic and shallow as 'Clumsy', 'Ugly', or 'Busybody', and work your way on to the deeper ones, such as 'Failure', 'Not good enough', or 'Toxic'. If you want, throw in quotes from other characters that have influenced your character, like, "You'll never amount to anything," "Why can't you be more like [insert name here]?", etc. Anything goes. This is your character -- take this time to get to know them. Open the gates to the storehouses of their deepest insecurities, and exploit their secrets. (Did I say that out loud?)
4. Add whatever visual effects you desire to make the map look cooler. Or just leave it as it is. I personally like to make these things as visually appealing an personal to the character as possible. For example, I use their favorite colors as the background colors, and a character who loathes himself will have a darker-colored map than one who tries to think positively and copes more effectively with her insecurities. If you want the effects to change the look of the character's face or of the text, you'll need to merge the various layers so that they're all stuck in place and edited together.
5. Save the map and store it somewhere for future reference.
(P. S. DO NOT try to apply the 'Canvas Color' or an equivalent feature if you decide to change the color after you've already added text or pictures. It will cover everything you've done with whatever color you select. It's basically like taking a physical canvas and covering it in new paint. It's a blank slate, which you do not want to create after you've gone to the trouble of creating and tweaking this map. Instead, use 'Tint', and use the eraser on areas where you do not want to add the new color.)
For a more basic, physical map:
1. Take a piece of paper and write your character's name on it.
2. Do the same as above -- start writing the first insecurities that come to mind for your character. Like I said, sometimes it's easiest to start with surface insecurities that are more obvious to others and work your way down to the ones only your character realizes, or maybe even that they've denied long enough to forget they have them. Another method may be to start with the deep ones that you already know and branch out into other deep ones, or swim up to the surface ones that bubble up from the deeper ones. It all depends upon how well you already know your character, and what starting point you prefer to use.
3. Again, store this somewhere for future use. You might need to reference it later while looking for ways to torture -- er, develop your character's story arc.
All seriousness aside, have fun with this, you guys. This is nowhere near a scientific method -- it's just a little exercise in getting to know your character, getting a feel for how they view themselves, and figuring out how their self-image might affect their thoughts, behaviors, and ultimately your plot.
Hm. I wonder what would happen if someone made an Insecurity Map for the Doctor. What might be on it? What do you think? Pick your favorite fictional character and make an Insecurity Map for them. Use deduction if necessary. Look at what they do, what they say, and try to figure out what part of their self-image might have influenced those decisions.
Huh. For once, I actually wrote a blog post that stayed pretty much on-topic. Mostly. But not entirely. I can never seem to do that. Even if I stick with the basic topic, I always digress from the original plan. Once I tried to write a guest post about the experience of writing a second book in a series, and ended up writing a post about the fear of failure. Yeah, that's just how my brain works. It's very random, and pretty much always has been. That's probably why I can never completely stick to a plot...
But, as always... I digress.