Monday, April 04, 2011

Christians Ask WWJD? Writing Doc Asks WWYCD?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Think of your favorite literary characters. What makes them memorable? Chances are, each of the story people you love has a vibrant personality, or at least some trait or spark that makes them come alive on the page. Since one of my biggest reading pet peeves is cardboard, personality-less characters, I'm a bit obsessed with making the cast of my WIP stand out. So, in an effort to understand them all a little better, I turned to What Would Your Character Do? by family therapist Eric Maisel and his wife, Ann, a world literature teacher. Through the 30 personality quizzes the book offers, I did learn more about them. I also realized that I knew my main character a lot better than I thought I did. How about that, huh?

The idea behind the book, according to Dr. Maisel, boils down to this: "The writer, the true expert on human nature, can contrive anything in the realm of human behavior. But whatever she contrives, she must still meet certain tests of plausibility and legitimacy" (8). To that end, he provides a series of personality quizzes through which a writer can put his/her characters. Each exercise gives a situation - say, a family picnic or a fancy night out - which would provoke the character into taking action of some kind. For each possible action, Dr. Maisel provides a psychological analysis of the kind of person who would take that particular action. For instance, if your character hears the news that a deadly meteor is speeding toward Earth, and she reacts by jumping right up and making an action plan, that would be consistent with a "resourceful, matter-of-fact character ... [who] has a survivalist's instincts for preparation and self-protection" (265).

While the author recommends actually writing a scene for each scenario, I tired of that after the first two or three. But, I did read through each one, think about how my character(s) would handle the problem, then check to make sure his/her action was consistent with the personality I had given him/her. Doing this reassured me that I knew my main character pretty well. It also showed me which of my cast members need work.

The situations Dr. Maisel describes in What Would Your Character Do? are actually pretty run-of-the-mill, nothing revolutionary, but I found them instructive. Again, not revolutionary, but helpful. I would have liked a little more advice on how to create a psychologically complex character, even a step-by-step kind of tutorial. Still, I liked this book. It reads quickly and really did help me to flesh out my characters. Did it do everything I wanted it to? No, but that's okay. It did enough.

(Readalikes: This is the first book I've read dealing specific with building fictional characters, so I can't think of anything ... Can you?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language and one exercise which involves a sex shop

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

4 comments:

  1. That is really interesting - thanks for letting me know about this book...

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  2. So you would recommend this just as an extra resource? Sounds interesting!

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  3. Sheila - You're very welcome :)

    Jessi - Exactly. I don't think it's the definitive book on building fictional characters, but it's definitely helpful.

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  4. That sounds a great book, really useful. Thanks for the review

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