Throughout my life I’ve known hundreds of people and seen hundreds of shows and read hundreds of books. There is a lot to this writing stuff that comes to me on a subconscious level (and a lot that doesn’t), and character development is definitely one of them.
A while back I found this blog by Alexandra Sokoloff. Alexandra was a screenwriter but now writes novels. She brings tricks of the trade from the film industry to writing novels, and she is brilliant. Seriously, she gives amazing advice, well worth losing a day or two in reading through her posts.
Anyway, she gives some great advice on characterization that sums up my feelings on the matter.
“I have this sense that EVERY real writer already has their own process for creating character, or I’d even say calling character, because that’s more what it seems like to me: you create an inviting space for characters to come, and hope to God they show up. And I don’t ever want to do or say anything that might screw that process up for anyone.”
I certainly don’t want to mess with what already works, but I will share my process, and hopefully it will be helpful or at least interesting.
“Character is the story; the story is the character."
I’ve heard this quote a lot on writing sites, but I have no idea where it originated. I don’t think it is true for all stories, but it is for the vast majority of the ones I read and the ones I write.
I develop characters, plot, and world building all at the same time. To me they are all intricately connected, and they all entwine with each other in a very unique way to form the story.
But the most important component to me is the character. Give me an interesting character or one that I love, and I will follow that character anywhere.
I usually start with an idea, a premise, an interesting scenario and then I start asking questions. Just like Melanie.
For example: This thread on hatrack made me start thinking about divine characters. How I would create conflict with a character that is all knowing, all seeing, and for the most part, all powerful. So I started thinking. Being a parent, the first thought that popped into my mind is how hard it is to watch my children fail. Watching them struggle to read a book, fall over on a bike, but sometimes they must fail at in order to succeed. Still it is hard to watch knowing that you can tell them the words they don’t know or hold on the back of the bike to prevent the crash. But I need higher stakes than a goddess (of course I chose a goddess) watching her people fail. I need death.
So I have a goddess who needs to allow the destruction of a village for the greater good. But I want this to be personal, so she needs to be there, living among the people in disguise. So this village is very devout, and she feels the need to be there with them, to help them face their death because of their unshakable faith in her. But living with them, makes her see them differently, love them on a different level, and now she is not sure if she can let them die when she has the power to save them, even though she knows it needs to be done.
There are still a million questions, and I’m far from being done, but I can see her character emerging and the conflict, the plot, and the world all at the same time. They are all connected.
How dare they disobey me
It always starts with my characters emerging because the plot demands them to be a certain way. For example: I need the goddess to live among her people, so she can’t be an arrogant and selfish. She needs to be loving. But I need her to be willing to sacrifice these people for the greater good, so there has to be a cool, logical side to her too.
In the beginning, this process works, the character and plot nicely develop together, but at some point they always seem to diverge. My plot needs my character to act a certain way, but the character is now so well-defined that she won’t just do what needs to be done. This is when I realize that I have a well-developed character.
“It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.” John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman
It almost feels mystical and I can see how some people would see it that way, but to me it is very logical.
Real people are what they say, think, and do. After fifty or so pages of a character saying, thinking, and doing certain things, they become real, and they can no longer be slaves to the plot. The character has arrived, and now the plot must be tweaked to fit the character.
All of this is really intuitive for me, so I don’t know how to explain how it happens or how I know when it happens. It’s like knowing a person in real life, and knowing when they are acting like themselves and when something is off.
Some Practical Advice
It isn’t always instinct and mysticism for me. Sometimes I do have to flesh out a character, and there are some tricks that I use.
- Acting- Alexandra Sokoloff suggests taking an acting class to help with characterization, and I agree with her (you don’t have to actually take an acting class, but you could read a book or articles on it).
I was into drama in high school (I was even in a few plays). I really believe that there is no better way to understand characters than trying to portray one. It makes you think deeply about what makes us all different, from how we think to mannerisms.
A lot of it comes down to motivation. What the character wants, what she is willing to do to get it, and what she isn’t willing to do. It isn’t about what her favorite color is or what her favorite song is or whether or not she is good at math. Don’t get me wrong, these details add depth to the character, but they do not define her. Motivation does.
- Backstory, backstory, backstory- Whenever I just can’t get a character to work. I always go to their backstory even though it rarely ends up on the page (although I’m sure Sarah will tell me that more of it should).
To me, people are not a list of character traits, but defined by their experiences. So I always think about their childhood, their family and friends, and try to discover those big defining moments. Once I understand where they come from, I understand what they will do.
That is all I got. I know it’s not much, but hopefully it helped some. I’ve always been curious about how others flesh out characters, so please feel free to share. Are your characters created, summoned, or revealed?