Monday, August 4, 2008

developing characters

From: Janine

As a science teacher, I find it extremely interesting that I've surrounded myself with writers. I have friends who write sermons, poetry, prayers, fiction, non-fiction, etc. I've come to a place now where I sometimes think about the possibility of writing some of my own fiction, perhaps even science fiction.

The one idea that I struggle with is character development. I've asked others this, and I became curious about your writing. Your characters, especially Aud, are beautiful creations, and I've enjoyed watching them morph over time. My characters already appear in my head, fully-developed. That would make for flatness. I like round, curvy and complex.

What process do you go through when writing a story to develop your characters?

It's good to know people unlike ourselves. One of the things I find quite strange about this country is how people...flock. Neighbourhoods, bars, churches--the populations are quite homogenous. In England, there seemed to be a lot more mixing. Community was built on geography, on the village--the populations were smaller but more various in terms of education, aspiration, attitude. There again, I grew up there; my roots went deeper and wider into the community. Here in Seattle, where I've never been employed, or been to school, or attended a church, it's easy to only meet people like me. I have to make strenuous efforts to connect with people from different walks of life. And mostly, to be honest, it turns out not to be worth the effort.

Which is why a blog like this, and getting on the road when I have a new book out, is so rewarding. So thanks to all who share of themselves in this forum.

Getting to know characters begins the same way as getting to know people in real life. I ask a new person questions. I observe them in situations like a restaurant, or bad traffic, or suffering reversals--a bad day at work, coping with criticism, dealing with their mad/bad/sad brother. I compare carefully what they say with what they do. I compare what they say verbally with what they say with their bodies. I do the same thing with a character.

With a character, though, I ask by putting them in a situation: sit them on a sofa with a precious manuscript, their sweetie, and their dog. Set the house on fire. See what happens. This is what I did most recently with Aud: put her in a room with ten southern women and watched her try to explain her view of the world. I learnt a lot. In fact, I learnt the thing I'd been trying to learn for ten years: how and why Aud became fascinated by self defense.

The mistake most beginning writers make is that they try to build their characters. They assemble them from off-the-shelf components to fit plot demands--I need her to be angry here, and kick the dog, so that her brother forms a lifelong hatred of her, so he can murder her friend in chapter two--and expect them to be whole and realistic. Intermediate writers tend to constantly put themselves in the character's shoes, so the character, while living and breathing, becomes autobiographical. I've said before that art is a black box process, and finding, observing, and describing characters is part of that. Aud came to me in a dream and I spent the next fifteen years figuring her out (though only ten of those years actually writing about her). It doesn't get much more mysterious than that.

But for beginners, I'd say: make lists and then write scenes. Write a list of your character's favourite/least favourite novel, relative, outfit, meal, school subject and so on. Then write a scene where s/he is four and fifteen and thirty: the first time she is told off at school, the first sex, the first adult setback. Whatever. But pick small private moments and big public moments. Take her through embarrassment, joy, fear, envy, hunger. Give her some dialogue, describe her from inside her own head and from another character's perspective. And delight in it, in her. You'll find out a lot.




  1. I'm rather fond of round, curvy and complex myself.


  2. .laugh.
    Duff, you're a kindred spirit.

    Nicola, thank you so much for that! I think I might spend a while every day asking my characters some questions.
    Judging by the amount of time you were learning about Aud, I suspect I shouldn't rush the process, eh?

  3. As I write some of my characters I become possessed by them and act out their speech and gestures. I get strange looks when writing in coffee shops.

    The protagonist of my book Hel's Bet often shocks me with her antics.

  4. I act things out too. Apparently Nicola sometimes wanders by my office and sees me talking to myself... or laughing, or crying, whatever. I guess it's good I don't write in coffee shops. Or hey, Doug, maybe we should just sit at the same table and talk to ourselves, wouldn't that confuse people? (grin)

  5. duff, I like girls. That's about as far as I'm willing to go in restricting my choices :)

    janine, sometimes it's fun to rush, sometimes it's fun to go slowly. Try both.

    doug, I occasionally act out complicated action sequences. And sometimes a really strong emotion in my writing will leak into my life with Kelley--though perhaps it might be more true to say my life stuff leaks into my writing. Or is the foundation for my writing. Or...huh. This is too hard today. I'm going to go out for dinner and a couple of very cold kamikazes.

    kelley, you coming...?

  6. I did get side-tracked off of the main focus of Janine's questions.
    Once I got past that found your comments, Nicola, very instructive. Especially for me, since I've never thought of myself as a writer. I have started jotting and am enjoying it very much. Now, thanks to you, I have one more direction to go. Well, I guess with acting out that makes two directions. Thanks!


  7. Have one for me, Nicola. :D
    I've got teacher homework tonight!

  8. duff, I hope you enjoy your jotting. It's something I encourage for all artists (writers, musicians, painters, dancers, etc): enjoy. Without the joy, it's just a J.O.B. May as well stack shelves...

    janine, I think I had one for every reader of this blog :) Plus a lovely sockeye salmon with blueberry gastrique, followed by chocolate pot de creme with creme anglais. Home for a lovely cup of tea. And now bed. Aaaah.

  9. > I act things out too... hey, Doug, maybe we should just sit at the same table and talk to ourselves, wouldn't that confuse people? (grin)

    We'd both be oblivious to the other, each wrapped up in our character. Onlookers would see us in intense conversation.