Writing: Characters, Part I

An effective story requires strong characters. Not ‘strong’ in the sense of being able to tear telephone books in half, but in being well-defined and capable of action. Entire books have been written on how to develop fictional characters. I’ll tell you what I do; you can develop your own methods.

I’ll warn you here that this is not a linear process. Character creation usually happens before and during the first and subsequent drafts, not all at once before the writing begins.

I start with a situation, the core concept. What happens if…? Each situation will call for certain types of people, types that will best bring out the inherent drama of the setup. If you’re writing about, say, the rise and fall of the CEO of “Octopus Industries,” you’ll probably make him an outgoing, dynamic, intelligent SOB, perhaps even a malignant narcissist. (On the other hand, be alert for opportunities for making your characters almost the exact opposite of what people expect out of the box.)

Never saddle yourself with a passive protagonist. That is deadly to the novel.

If this were a linear process, I’d make a alphabetic list of all the characters in my story, from A to Z, with no initial letter used twice. (There are few things more annoying than reading a book where one main character is named Alberto and another Alfredo.)

Then I could write a description of each character: looks, height, hair color, and how they react in general: “Mildew Mibbet was a sour, passive aggressive young woman with a whiny voice . Ever alert for an opportunity to be offended, she’d read the private correspondence of others, hoping to find something insulting therein….” And so on.

But I find it more effective to do an interview with each character. I ask questions in my  interviewer persona and then write the most likely responses for that character. Since the answer is in first person, I have to get into the character’s head to create a consistent response. That getting-into-their-head exercise is very valuable; I’ll need to do that same thing for every action and line of dialogue for that character for the entire book.

When character creation is done properly, I’ll occasionally discover that the character has a better idea than I did in some situation. In Chapter 7 of Sail Away on My Silver Dream, David asks to keep a Christmas present he’d bought for someone, rather than return it to the store. I had no idea why he was doing this. It was only when I reached Chapter 16 that I found out.

On the other hand, you have to watch out for characters “going rogue,” and taking the story off into directions you don’t want to go. I’ve seen some novels by famous authors ruined when a character suddenly changed, destroying himself and the story’s carefully constructed atmosphere.

Do not feel that every character trait or bit of history you create in this process must be incorporated in the text. Quite the opposite. This is an exercise in creating the character, not material for publication.

Next time, I’ll post an interview with my character “Barb Morrison.” That, like most backstory, was not intended to see the light of day. (I never wrote a story featuring Barb or “Harold.” Both are strong characters, very well developed in my mind, and I can tell what they would do in any given situation, how they’d interact. I may write that story yet.)

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