Growing Characters

I’ve been working through Martha Engber’s Growing Great Characters from the Ground Up. The purpose is to get a better handle on my protagonist before penning my next novel. Geez, this process is much harder than I thought, mostly because this is so foreign to my normal way of approaching a story. You see, I’m a bit of a “pantser.” My normal process is to start with an idea and then begin writing. The characters usually develop as the story evolves.

With Engber’s approach, you start with the character first. You explore what you know about them to pull out their “one defining detail.” This detail could be an incident, an object, or a physical feature, but whatever you choose, this detail must be essential to their outlook on life. The defining detail reveals their primary motivation and greatest fear. Once you know their motivation, you put the character in situations (action) that will motivate them to face their greatest fear (conflict) and force them to change. And, there you have it, the major arc of your story.

The second half of the book gives several more helpful tips, but the exercises are far too detailed for my “pantser” tendencies. Even so, Engber’s book is just what I needed. I have files on each of the major characters and a detailed profile of my protagonist. In addition, I have a list of scenes that take me through the major plot arc. I can honestly say that this is the most meticulous I have ever been in planning a story.

Through these exercises, I understand my character better and am more inspired to write. The story is gelling for me and I’m itching to hit the keyboard. I know that taking the time to lay this groundwork will pay off as I write my novel. I hope this experience will help me take my writing to the next level.

What writing resources have you found helpful? Any other recommendations?

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3 Responses to Growing Characters

  1. I can’t wait to see how the process works out. I am very plot driven so I imagine my writing would benifit from this technique. My favorite writing resource: practice, practice, practice. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a good reference for the nuts and bolts.

    • chs says:

      I’m very plot-driven as well, so this was a challenging experience for me. It was good though, and I actually ended up making changes to my plot outline as a result.

      Oh, I loved Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I enjoyed it even more for the “why” of writing than the “how to.”

  2. Susan Berman says:

    I think I am more character driven than plot. Guess that’s why my writing has so much dialog. At times, I take the narrative approach. I can feel my readers falling asleep as I type. Annie Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” an inspiration to me. That’s why I have birds scattered around my office and the phrase “bird by bird” framed on my desk. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is a good resource as well. And, one learns why, to some extent, King writes in the horror genre.

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