Lessons learned – A Writer’s Guide to Characterisation by Victoria LynnSchmidt

This is the third of Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s writerly ‘how to’ books that I’ve read, and the things I found useful about it are very similar to the previous two books. I doubt that it’s breaking deep new ground with its approach, but it’s useful for me, and will be one I’ll refer back to a lot over the next year.

A Writer's Guide To Characterisation - available in soothing mint green
A Writer’s Guide To Characterisation – available in soothing mint green

A Writer’s Guide to Characterisation builds on the archetypes Schmidt gave in her previous 45 Master Characters. These archetypes are designed as bases for characters who will click with an audience, and the first half of the book looks at how the archetypes interact with each other. Schmidt discusses how these archetypes are likely to see each other, how they will cooperate and how they’ll clash. I took some issue with the division into male interactions, female interactions and romantic interactions – as if only male-female relationships can be romantic, and they can’t be any other way – but I understand that Schmidt’s providing shortcuts in a limited page count, so I’ll cut her some slack. The romance could be added or removed from these relationships while still making use of Schmidt’s guidance. If you’ve read 45 Master Characters, then it’s a useful appendix to that.

The second half of the book gives a new set of archetypes, based around animals and loosely grounded in Jungian psychology. These aren’t substitutes for the previous archetypes, but something that could be used just as readily with them as instead of them. Rather than focusing on classic fictional personality types, these focus on the character’s theme, purpose and arc. While this isn’t totally detached from the character’s personality, it did remind me that the two aren’t the same. You could write three similar protector characters but give each a very different story by making one learn about trust, one about freedom, and one about patriotism. I don’t think I’ll be looking at these as often as the previous 45 models, which I use for most of my characters, but I will use them.

I ended up with two main lessons from this book. One’s familiar – frameworks and archetypes can be useful. If you treat them as a support rather than a restriction, then they can provide shortcuts on some aspects of a character, freeing you up to think about the other details. If you know where you’re starting from, they can also raise the right questions to give your character depth.

The other lesson was that a character’s personality and motivation aren’t the same as the arc, the changes they’ll go through and lessons they’ll learn from the story. Having options in a book will help me not to use the most obvious arc for each character, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Now excuse me, I have a chapter to go write. But before I do, I should consider whether my heroine’s character arc fits the archetypes of a horse or a whale.

Using templates for writing

If we take creative structures to their extreme we end up with templates. There’s a certain snobbery around these, whether intended or not, that implies that using them isn’t really doing the craft, that it is somehow going to limit your creativity. To that I say nonsense.

There are all sorts of writing templates out there. Worksheets for setting design. Story structures. Character archetypes. They’re all short-cuts for creating part of your story, that give you a framework to hang the details on, and a reminder of what the important details are.

I’ve been using templates a lot recently, especially Dan Wells’s seven point story structure and Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s books on structure and characterisation. Once I’ve got an initial kernel of a story, these help me flesh it out in compelling ways. I’m building on the boundaries others have provided, creating something new within those structures, something that’s my own. And my stories have been better for it.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcmiqQ9NpPE&w=560&h=315]

 

This doesn’t mean that I’m bound to those templates, or that I’m going to keep using them forever. They provide me with a way to practice the fundamentals, to go over building blocks of good writing until they come to me on instinct.

If I was learning to play folk music I wouldn’t start with my own composition. I’d play All Around My Hat until everyone around me was sick of that song. Then I’d learn the next tune, and the next, each time learning a bit more about how to play folk, until eventually I was ready to write the ultimate tribute to the victims of the Peterloo Massacre.

The Peterloo Massacre - not a template to follow (image courtesy of Nefarioussenator on flickr creative commons)
The Peterloo Massacre – a template for oppressing peaceful protest
(image courtesy of Nefarioussenator on flickr creative commons)

Using templates in writing is the same thing. It’s playing others’ songs so that you can write your own.

These templates provide boundaries, and that can provide inspiration. They’re not a restriction to which you must rigidly adhere, but a guide you can use until you feel confident to create those structures for yourself. Or that you can stick to forever if they work for you.

No story springs fresh out of nowhere, every one builds on foundations that others have laid. Fresh sparks of genius don’t fly unbidden from Neil Gaiman’s forhead, unrelated to everything that has come before. Instead he takes mythology and superhero comic tropes to create Sandman, or riffs on The Jungle Book for The Graveyard Book. If using others’ structures is good enough for him, then it’s certainly good enough for me.

What templates have you found useful? Do you, like me, sometimes feel that traitorous niggling in your guts that these are cheating? Have you seen them used well or badly in something you’ve read? Then leave a comment – there’s a template for it below.