Talking about characters

I worked with a group of young writers yesterday, focusing on developing believable, unique characters.

We started off talking about characters in our favorite books. Percy Jackson, Ron Weasley, Melody Brooks, Garfield the cat were among some mentioned. I loved how different these beloved characters were from each other. Even cooler was the way the students described them. They could’ve been describing their best friends.

After that, we moved on to creating our own characters. We used a list of attributes and a questionnaire to get to know our characters, and we talked a lot about how to show and not tell those traits. Pretty soon, the students were describing their own characters just as intimately.

I loved listening in as they sketched out their characters. “She’s pretty,” I said about one’s drawing. “Love the posh clothes.”

“Yeah,” the student said. “But she’s not very nice. She’s sort of a mean girl. Right now, anyway.”

To another, I said, “I like her style.”

“She doesn’t let other people decide what she wears or does. Other kids call her weird, but she’s a great artist,” the student said. “The only thing she’s scared of is heights.”

I think it might be one of the coolest part of being a writer, when these figments of your imagination take shape and grow. Ask my poor, patient daughter who comes home every afternoon right as I'm finishing that day's writing. "How's Noah?" she'll ask, naming the protag of my work in progress (WIP).

"He's struggling right now," I might say, and then blab on for about a half-hour.

I know  a lot of writers start of with a plot device. Their stories are seeded in the idea of the plot and the characters come from that.

I'm the opposite. First I think of a character. Over the course of weeks or even months, I think about that "person," what makes him tick and how he'd react to different situations. And then I (hopefully) find my plot.

But everything hinges on the character.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my son that morning.

"Who's your favorite character in Pack of Dorks'?" asked my 8-year-old son.
"Will he be in your other 'Dork' books?"
"I think so."
Long pause. "You write them. Isn't it up to you?"

But the thing is, I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen to these characters I love so much. I have an idea, of course, but they tend to surprise me. They make their own decisions and, too often, their own mistakes. They surprise me all the time.

In my WIP, I recently ended up writing a scene I never saw coming. I know! That sounds absolutely insane, right? But I was planning one set of actions to transpire and out of no where, another character barges it. The scene ended up being pivotal: Suddenly the motivation for everything else the characters have done up until that point is cystalized. The WIP wouldn't work without the scene that I never planned to happen.

And that's, for me, when a project actually starts to feel like a story. The characters tell their own stories.

So you tell me, who's your favorite character?

And writers, are you plot driven or character driven?