Happy Sunday, friends! Good morning from the west continental USA, it’s a beautifully sunny morning over here and a perfect day to get this dinky little writer girl to talk about writing characters.
I seem to recall, many posts ago, I wrote that I, personally, am a character-centric writer. That assertion has not faded since I wrote it several weeks ago, and it will probably never change about me. I love characters. Characters are the reason I get into stories. Everything in the book that I want to convey, I ultimately want to convey through these characters.
(Got a nasty case of stratified social classes in your story, and you want to portray the horrors of the disparity? What better way than to have a character have simple and tragic reflections. I have a character like this that I am writing now. She’s scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of social hierarchy, and has said such things as “I think nothing.” Ouch.)
I digress. What I want to get at today is how I go about writing and developing characters, and how this guides my thinking in terms of building story around characters.
Though I want to say that there are two schools of thought around character creation, and how you then go about developing a story around your characters, I feel I might fall into some very ugly over-simplification if I do. “Do you view your characters as people, or as props?” seems to me like the sort of question you’d find on a bad “which anime character type are you?” kind-of survey from the early 2000’s. In reality, I don’t actually know if there is any writer who thinks of their characters as props–and if that kind of writer exists, I sure as heck haven’t met them. Even when I, personally, thought a writer was treating a character as more of a prop than a person, I never heard that writer talk about their characters as though they intended them to be props.
I think most of us writerly-types are, at our core, pretty into characters as these complex bundles of personality and contradiction. Perhaps that’s popular right now, or perhaps it has always been that way. Either way–I don’t think anyone wants a character who is solely a prop, in the sense that they are inanimate things that writers move around.
But if the character isn’t real, and the writer doesn’t have control, then just who’s flying the plane?
Listen–as writers, we hold executive power. Honestly, it’s as simple as that. We’re the ones who check off on everything, who put it in or cut it out, who say what characters have got to show up to make the story go… And as far as that logic is concerned, we’re puppeteers. We’d be hard-pressed to be anything else. And that’s okay. You need someone running the show, otherwise nothing ever would get written, full stop.
But how I go about writing characters, personally, is… if not democratic, than fairly open, and pretty danged organic.
A lot of this, for me, comes from avoiding anything super-prescriptive. I don’t say how my characters are. I spend a lot of time asking, how could you be? Asking what would make sense, what would place them in a bind, what might make things more agonizing for them… I let a lot of things fall into place very organically. I approach getting to know characters like I would get to know a friend. I spend some time thinking about the character, figuring out what they’ve done in the past, how they got to where they are, what they might do. When I write, I let whim surprise me. And then, again, I ask why. If my character got angry when I least expected it, what might have prompted that? What about their personality, their past, their person, might have triggered a more severe reaction than I expected?
I think of it as a very interrogative process. Rather than “I need x to happen in the story, ergo my character must do y,” I say, “What if my character was like y? What would test my character and stand in their way, if they were like that? It might be x, or even z.”
At a certain point, of course, you are making the final decisions. That’s where the executive power of your writerly self comes in. But the process of getting to a place where you’re comfortable making decisions becomes highly organic. You explore a lot of routes, first. You go with your gut. You take risks and see what happens. I think that’s what gives me the sense that my characters are popping off the page–I’m letting myself be surprised, and be open to whim. You can always go back and edit, but without that whimsy, you might never deviate from your Big Important Set Plan for the Story, and thereby never surprise yourself with new and delightful things.
When I first decide to make a character, I start with bare bones. I suppose everyone does, to some degree–no one creates a character knowing off the bat what their favorite food is, what weather they don’t like, and which insects happen to irritate them the most. But I like to start off with a big, general idea. Some questions I typically ask myself are:
What role do I want them to play?
Am I creating a protagonist? A villain? An anti-hero? These are big ol’ archetypes into which a lot of fine detail can fit in. But just by asking this question, I know what role they need to play–and then I can start asking how they play it. (Is this a plucky protagonist who we want to see succeed, or a bad-tempered one we want to see get soft? A villain we abhor, or a villain we wish we could adore? And so on, ad infinitum…)
What are they hiding?
That bad-tempered protagonist I mentioned earlier? Maybe they have a soft side they don’t want anyone to know about. Perhaps that plucky heroine has a deep-seated insecurity in her own abilities, one that she must push past to her own detriment. Perhaps your villain feels weak sometimes, or tired, or like he cannot possibly go on.
Whatever they’re hiding, the next question should always be why. Why do they feel that way? Where did they come from and what have they already suffered, that they are scared of being this way, or showing this thing? That leads you to all kinds of marvelous things–like prejudices, blind spots, phobias and fears… the works.
What do they want?
Ah, the real meat of any character you might create. What are their goals, their values, their deepest darkest desires? What are they willing to compromise for, and what won’t they back down from even when worse comes to worst? What will they keep fighting for, and change their own selves to make it possible?
There’s that famous quote that every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. I agree. Knowing what your character wants will give you huge insight into who they are as a person, and what they might be willing to do to get their deepest desires. Wants will propel your character forward, give them dynamism, direction, and purpose. It gives your characters motivation, something to lose, and something to change for.
My other favorite question is sort of built off of the last two. It goes like this:
Given what my character fears, and what they want, what might stand in their way, and what if something happened that stoked their fears and prevented their desires?
That’s conflict. That’s plot, right there. And it reveals a lot about your character, too, knowing how they’d react in these situations. You know what they fear–so how do they react when confronted with their worst case scenario? You know what they want–so how far will they go to get it? What will they risk, what will they withstand, and what are they willing to let go of or even lose to see it through?
I live for this. This to me is where we fall in love with characters. As people, we want things. Sometimes we even want them badly. Seeing another character wanting, and working to get it… it excites us. It excites me, anyway. This is the brunt of what I want in characters–all and any. What do they want, what do they fear, and what happens when the two crop up together and threaten everything that your character is about?
I possibly err on the side of too organic, honestly. I love all of this–building with questions, seeing what flows, and planning a lot around emotional context. This makes for a very organic style, but also a fairly hectic one. For instance, a thing I have tried to use, and actually despise making? Character sheets. I know–some people swear by these things, and if they float your boat, do it! But for whatever reason, I cannot wrap my head around them to save my life.
Ask me to talk about my characters, or ask me questions? Heck yeah! Character sheets for the sake of me being able to refer back and always know Character B’s favorite color, regardless of whether or not it has context or ever becomes relevant? Nah, man, nah.
All of which is to say–hit me up if you are a more analytical kind of person! If you love character sheets, take more control in the process of character creation, or even in writing your characters! I’d love to pick your brain about it and compare notes. Characters are and shall likely always be a topic of utmost fascination. You can probably get me talking for ages.
And for those of you out there who are wondering how to make organic, well-rounded characters, or who don’t quite know where to start with character creation–I hope my guiding questions above give you some ideas.
All the best, my lovelies. As always, keep up the good writing!