Wednesday, 7 June 2017

About character journaling (as promised)

A few people asked for a post on character journaling when I mentioned it a while back. Since it's just something I do - I think I got the idea from a GoTeenWriters post?? - I decided to do some research so I'd have a little more knowledge [before I pretended to talk about it like I actually knew].

Turns out I don't do character journaling?

Google won't define any of these terms for me (I'm ashamed of you, Google), and keeps giving me results about journaling's health benefits for your personal character, but as far as I can tell these seem to be the meanings of various terms:

Character journaling: Keeping a diary as your character.
Character interview: Pretending you're sitting opposite your character and asking them questions.
Character questionnaire: Hair/eye colour, family members, age, all that important and yet really boring stuff.
Voice journaling: Ask a question every so often, and your character answers it and just continues in a stream-of-consciousness sort of thing?

I find the questions in questionnaires (and possibly interviews, depending) good to know the answers to, but not useful for finding a character's personality. Is there a reason blue is his favourite colour? It's possible - but personally, I don't have a favourite colour or a reason behind that. And character journaling might be a good way to find out about your character, but I don't have the motivation or patience to write a whole book just to find out that my main character actually doesn't like all the travelling they've been doing, because of their insecurity and that one thing that happened (involving their family) when they were small. Or some such detail.

For investigating a character's personality, I use what one source called 'voice journaling'. [Seems like a cross between interviewing and journaling??]

I get a piece of paper and write a question at the top. "What's your relationship with your mother?" is a handy one, despite my cringing every time I use it ("So tell me about your mother!"). I have dug up so much family/political dirt with this one. (In my excuse, I was interviewing various members of a scheming royal family, so it was relevant.) Once 'the character' starts answering, I try not to overthink, but to keep writing and go with the flow - wherever feels right. Sometimes what comes out will clash with a previously-thought-out background detail, but I usually find I like the new version better. Other times, I simply get more ideas for rounding out the character.

Here's my standard list: 
*spends half an hour trying to find list in mountains of paper*
*possibly a sign I've been procrastinating writing for too long??*
  • What's your relationship with your mother/father like?
  • Who was your first love? 
  • What do you think about [Character B]? [good for getting an insight into your main character from a fresh pair of eyes, or exploring a supporting character further.]
  • What is your greatest fear? 
  • What is the trait you most deplore [in yourself/others]?
  • Which living person do you most admire?[interesting in a fantasy world... requires thought into worldbuilding! Is it an author? A scientist/inventor?? An athlete???] 
  • What do you dislike most about your appearance?
  • What quality do you admire most in a man? In a woman? 
  • What is your greatest achievement? 
  • What is your greatest regret? 
  • How would you like to die? [this actually sounds a bit ominous?? especially coming from the author??]
  • What is your motto? 
  • What is the most evil thing you've ever done? 
  • Who or what would you die for? [I use this one a lot.]
  • Do you like yourself? 
  • What is your responsibility to the world? 
  • Is it acceptable for you to cry? 
These are my favourites I copied off a bigger list somewhere. I have the memory of someone living in a house full of nesting Silence and have no idea where. 

I use them like so:
Who or what would you die for?
In a professional sense, my job is literally to die for Torr [country] or Queen Melanie, if dying is called for. As Double Sir Benjamin Doyle, personal guard to Her Majesty Queen Melanie, and a knight of Torr, I defend them both with my life; and if ever there is a situation where either the queen or I must die, Torr or I must fall, by my honour I will gladly die. And if they are ever in danger, it is my duty to place myself between them and the sword. In a personal sense, on the other hand, I am very fond of Ma and my  adopted sister. For them I would do a lot; but I'm not sure if I could die for them. If they were in mortal danger I certainly would rather die in their place, but the problem is, I can only die once. As long as I'm fighting I can protect everyone, but when I come to die, I can only do it once and then I'm gone. And I have a responsibility to Torr and Queen Melanie, and I don't fully trust anyone else to replace me. Especially not as Melanie's guard. No one understands her like I do. May I never be in a situation where I have to choose. I know I must place my loyalty with queen and country. However, if some blackhearts had a knife to Ma's throat and had refused all negotiations and offers of duels, demanding that I surrender and be killed in exchange for her life, I can't imagine saying, "Sorry, Ma," and walking off. Or with Lyndie [adopted sister] either. I suspect that - unlike in theory - I would die for whichever of the four might need me first. And another problem is that once I've been killed, I can't defend them any longer, or make sure the killers don't just slit their throats as soon as I'm out of the way. I suppose the cause of that problem is that I have an extremely limited number of people I trust - and they're the ones I'd die to protect.
[I'm sure that was an annoying large chunk of we-don't-really-care text. Sorry. This WIP is my baby - first serious novel (and still not finished O.O) - and Benny is one of my favourite characters. I like him better than the MC, actually...]

In this instance, I discovered something I could use in my plot: conflicting loyalties for a man whose life was to protect others, but didn't trust anyone else to do his job.

My characters often take the questions different ways. They lie, redirect, gloss over the truth, avoid the question, deliberately misinterpret the question, typically start by asking what business it is of mine anyway... and talk for a whole page. I discover new things about their personalities and backstories, who they love and who they hate. Villains typically do the evil gloat thing and then threaten me. One of my favourite characters (not the villain) threatened me too, actually, but it was on someone else's behalf, which shed a bit more light on his relationship/history with her. Another started his answer to "Who was your first love?" with "My first love is [his country] (I willfully misunderstand your question)"; he emphasized his loyalty/duty, but moved from that to his upcoming arranged marriage, showing that his mind was, in fact, on his first love [hint hint he's starting to suspect it's someone he's not supposed to be in love with. surprise.]

There are a few similar questions here at Gotham Writers - some the same as mine, some a little more questionnaire-y in feel. (Completely irrelevantly, I have no idea why you would call yourself Gotham Writers, but it sounds... brooding.) And the article I read about voice journaling is here - the extract from The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell is good.

Do you question your characters? Do they always cooperate and answer your questions properly, or do they lie and/or talk about something else? Have you ever been threatened by your characters?? I hope this was helpful!

p.s. is it journaling or journalling?? spell-check doesn't like either? not that I'm relying on the spell-check, of course...


  1. Awesome post! I always love to see other writers' methods, so I can "borrow" bits and pieces and mash them up into the method that works best for me. XD

    I used to do those super long questionnaires with 100+ questions, but I found them incredibly unhelpful, so I stopped. Now when I first come up with a character I pull out a notebook and scribble down everything that comes to mind, then later I'll scrapbook them. I'm not sure how to describe it exactly, but essentially I draw their name, then draw/write parts of documents I might find in their world such as their diary entries, conversations, royal orders, etc. Not sure if any of that made sense haha, but that's the basics of my process.

    Thanks for sharing! (I really liked reading your example about Benny by the way!) :D

    1. Definitely borrow whatever bits work well with your method, Melissa!

      I used to do the questionnaires too, but eventually I realised I was procrastinating xD Wow... your scrapbook of characters sounds fascinating! *takes notes*

      My pleasure! (Aw! Benny's my favourite child... he's 35 or something, but he's my baby. xD)

  2. This is really helpful, thanks! I'm glad you did this, I've been looking for more efficient ways to get to to know my characters.

    1. I'm glad it's helpful, Faith! I hope your characters open up to you - however reluctantly ;) (Sometimes they just don't want to talk to us, right??)

  3. Interesting method! I always chat with my characters inside my head as I go about my day, I might be a little crazy...

    1. Gray, I thought having conversations with your characters was the MARK of an author. (and it's fine until someone catches you doing the facial expressions to go along with your mental argument??) As for crazy, I'm pretty sure we're all mad here... ;)

  4. Oh, what fun! Playing with characters is always enjoyable.

    I'm with Melissa here: I tried doing the long questionnaires, but I so easily got bored with them, and never used half the bland information I got from them.

    What I like to do is pick a place or scene from the storyworld, and write a page or so form every character's POV. Like when I was outlining the first book from Betrayal and Bravery, I picked "the Royal family being escorted through the city and into the castle" as the scene. Then I proceeded to write from Marywyn's POV as a villager seeing things for the first time; from Wisdom's POV as she misses the whole thing; from Duren's POV as he stands guard; from Connaven's POV as she marches in it; and so on. It's lots of fun!

    You character (Benny, was it?) sounds super interesting! I really can't wait until you get some of your own writing out. I think you'll have a great writing style!

    1. That would be a great way to get to understand both your setting and your characters! I'm love seeing how each character notices different things, and interprets things differently. Betrayal and Bravery sounds like my kind of book... are you finished writing it? ;)

      Thanks! *blushes*

      (By the way, I think you commented on a post a while back as Julian D and I didn't know it was you xD But you have a blog now! So cool! *stalks intensely* *(but with meal breaks)* )

    2. I have finished the first two books, and am on the fourth round of editing the first one. I'm going to write the third for NaNoWriMo. So it's not really for reading yet, except for editing kind of reading. :)

      But yeah, I'm starting a blog now. Sarah and Pup are as well, and Arreth is picking hers back up. our official first posts will be on the 19th.

  5. This is really cool! I love doing basically anything of this ilk with characters. What I generally do is make a Wikipedia-type article concerning them. Going into deep detail in a similar layout of a Wiki article. This is especially critical for me concerning my one fantasy series, since it is so big and vast I would certainly forget half of it without writing it down!
    I love the idea of journalling! And of interviewing. I do that in my head, but never on paper. That sounds like a really cool exercise.

    1. Wow... I've never considered doing a full Wikipedia-style article! That's dedication ;) And yes, fantasy can get a bit complex... but to be fair you ARE creating several whole countries, in addition to the standard cast of characters and their families. Not to mention creating the plot. xD

  6. AAAHH I LOVE THIS. Most of my characters are EXTREMELY guarded so I have a hard time getting an honest, complete answer out of them. I will definitely have to try this! I currently use the 120 questions K.M. Weiland has, but I'm always looking for more ways to get to know my characters ;)

    And I see you have the "side character is more interesting than the MC" problem that I have xD

    Thank you for this post! <3

    audrey caylin

    1. My characters don't want to tell me what's going on, either. I have to get them talking and hope they accidentally let things slip - or draw conclusions from the gaps in their stories. Why do they make it so hard?? xD

      I think I prefer my side character because my MC is too perfect?? whereas for Benny, I've developed better motivation, background, relationships... It's definitely a problem! ;)

      Thank YOU for reading, Audrey. :)

  7. I do sometimes do this for my characters! Not NEARLY enough as I should though. I tend to just hash out a whole story in my head and find out things as I go. Buuut, I feel like this helps you develop a story way deeper and make the characters more complex, right?!?

    1. I do feel like voice journalling makes my characters more complex - often in ways I'd never thought of before! - and I think that helps my story get more complex too?

      (But yeah, Cait, despite pretending otherwise, I have to admit that my writing style is more "hashing it out in my head and finding out things as I go" too...)

  8. Ooh!!! This was super interesting! I had no idea there were so many options. I really enjoy the interview format - almost like I am my character's shrink. :) But! I also love your idea of just dumping their stream of consciousness onto paper!! Journaling as your character seems creepy but would probably be super insightful... ;)

    1. If I'd known there were so many options before I started researching, I probably wouldn't have written on the topic! ;) Interviews can be good - I suppose voice journaling is like interviewing but focusing on one or two questions? And writing a journal as your character would be very in-depth, I'm sure... (except maybe not for my characters? because when I wrote a diary it was really petty and shallow?? All "MY PARENTS ARE UNFAIR". And I look back at it and scream "THEY ARE RIGHT. AND YOU ARE A WHINY, PETTY TWELVE-YEAR-OLD".) ...sorry. Off topic. xD

    2. Ha! Well, you handled it nicely. Maybe now you could do a post specifically about what you do or like post an example or something???

      Ohhhh. Yeah. That is rather unfortunate. ;)


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