When I’m speaking with someone about my novels, they often ask me, “How do you choose your characters?” I imagine many writers get the same question. A reader’s emotional response to the novel’s heroes and villains determines their perceived quality of the work. One of my favorite sayings about writing fiction is, “The glory of the novel is that you can get to know characters better than in real life.” My ironic response, having thought more about the question, is, “I’m not sure.” What follows outlines how I do it, but I don’t argue that my way is the best way nor that it is developing. Maybe, within reason, each writer has to find their own.
Focusing on character development is essential. The protagonist, antagonist and the rest drive the plot and are the key to a good story. We remember the players long after we’ve forgotten the play. You might not recall all of the challenges Forest Gump faced, but you will recall his hallmark line (at least, I do,) “Stupid is as stupid does” for years to come.
Creating characters requires give and take
In a word, I describe my process as iterative. Preparing to write this blog, I reviewed my notes from my creative writing classes and the independent research I’ve done since. I suppose part of me wanted to ensure I wasn’t forgetting any obvious step. Best practice says the writer must have a firm idea about their characters before starting the story. This makes perfect sense. I am a systematic person. Marching through a checklist like a pilot preparing for a flight was the right way. Three steps, like A, B, and C. What could be simpler?
A three-step process: Step one. You are what you look like
I suppose most writers start with a physical portrayal. The reader needs to know what the character looks like, as we would when meeting someone for the first time. It is important not to overload though. Most people only remember two or three outstanding features, for example a crooked nose or small eyes. The writer should exercise caution if the description includes clothing because your character might change attire. The description must “fit” with future actions. A mouse-like man is less likely to fight in bars or otherwise manhandle his adversaries, (unless he’s a martial arts master, which is a story unto itself.) Maybe your protagonist limps or bears a scar from an important part of their history (revealed later.) Sometimes the name defines the person. What more needs saying after hearing the tag Ebenezer Scrooge?
Where do I find ideas for my character’s attributes? I read books, watch the news and scan the internet. I also observe and think about people. Once I stopped my real job and started writing, I thought back to the many personalities I had the pleasure (or not) working with. My approach resembles that of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, “sewing” pieces of people and their behavior together. Maybe too exact a picture can get you sued. There is another element at hand too – the writer’s subconscious mind. If I’ve loved dogs my entire life (the truth,) how likely is it I would create a character like Cruella de Vil in The Hundred and One Dalmatians? Call this a hidden, perhaps omnipresent force. I also admit to a day-dreaming habit. I do it all the time and have for years. You might see a vendor selling street meat. I wonder. Is he or she also passing insider trading information recorded on a tiny USB chip hidden inside an uncooked sausage sold to the customer he identified as the contact because he wore sunglasses on a cloudy day? In writing parlance, the dream enactment is known as the “what if” step.
Step two: You are what you do
It was at this point I received my first clue that, perhaps I wasn’t as aware of my “give and take” process as I thought. I studied one of the key character checklists I use, called The Four C’s: Characterization, Contrast, Choices and Change.
As I described above, I had a good handle on Characterization. It is everything observable about the character. Contrast was a good reminder. To create a compelling actor, I must make them different from their environment–the more extreme the variances, the better. Dorothy was far unlike just about everyone in Oz. A bull in a china shop is a great analogy.
Then I reviewed Choices and Change, and my notes gave me an “aha” moment. The list read:
- Each character must face a struggle vs. external forces.
- The story is a constant cause and effect, action and reaction.
- We learn about characters as they react to unexpected events.
- Every character must have conflict. Protagonist vs. antagonist.
- This means every story is only as strong as the antagonist.
- The dramatic function of any hero is to learn.
- Create an unconscious desire the hero realizes as the story progresses.
- Look for a level of conflict that isn’t solvable.
The list goes on but here was my dilemma. Half of the four C’s screamed that the character definition only happens after reaction to unwanted or unexpected experiences. That’s the same as saying I complete the actor definition at the end or near to it. I’m not suggesting the story writes itself but I can’t deny that I get to know my hero and antagonists better as I compose and follow them through situations. Their roles in a story are fluid and always moving, developing, transforming, until you reach the end. Since behavior and a character’s actions and reactions define the hero (and all the other players,) my process must follow suit.
Step three: Beware the 3:00 a.m. shift
You might have heard that editing a novel takes a multiple of the hours required to compose the first draft. I can’t tell you how many times I (or my trustworthy editors) have said something like, “In this scene, Blackie reacted with compassion and later behaved like an animal. The issues were very similar in type. That’s inconsistent behaviour. Which is it?”
And so it goes, back and forth. Weak characters vacillate. When writing, I think about my story a lot. Add to that, when I’m in the middle of a novel, 3:00 a.m. is a danger zone. If I wake up for any reason, I’ll often spend the next two hours thinking about my story. Adding blogs to my writing menu has increased the risk of mid-morning imagination running amok. I will say, though, I’ve worked through many writing issues when it’s dark outside. At least it’s quiet.
Back to the question at hand
As I mentioned in the first part, this process of putting words on paper has helped me define something vaguer than I realized. I suppose an accomplished, more experienced writer might chastise me, saying if I spent more time defining my character in the first place, I would know how they’d react in a situation. Fair enough. I will work on that.
As I struggled with this post, I received an email from a former writing teacher, Barbara Kyle. Her creative writing course over twelve years ago gave me the confidence to continue. Although an award-winning author with sales of over one-half million books, she is also active as a writing coach and I periodically attend one of her on-line courses and/or ask her to review my work. Ironically, her email title was, “What Drives Your Story: Characters or Plot?” It was as if she knew I was in the middle of that question and was checking up on me. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the final sentence, “Always remember this. Character creates plot. Period.” If you’re interested, The full article is here: https://mailchi.mp/barbarakyle.com/what-drives-your-story-characters-or-plot
I doubt that the back and forth, give and take relationship I have with my characters will ever stop. They experience many things and who they are at the end of the story is far different from what they or I imagined at the beginning. Here’s the key, though. I’ve had readers say for example, “I don’t like that Blackie guy.” If my fluid character creation process results in more feedback like that, then I’m I happy guy. It doesn’t concern me whether you like or don’t like my protagonist or antagonist in this case. If you have feelings about them, that’s music to my ears.
If not, it’s time to work on the next draft.