Oh, yeah, characters

A post at Book View Cafe: Oh, yeah, characters.

A while back I talked a bit about my writing process. I left out how I create characters. Sure enough, one of my two readers asked me about it. So, I hemmed and hawed. Turned on them ferociously. Whistled and tried to walk nonchalantly out of the room. All because I’m not sure how I do it. …

The character might have to be articulate to explain the plot, athletic to run around while chased by evil, able to hack a computer with dark net technology, woo the romantic interest and be rooted for during necessary sunset sailing at the end of the story. Okay. That might define a role. It does not define a character. But it does suggest the shape of a character.

The author of this post, Steven Popkes, then provides a post that … I suspect … just guessing here, but he says he’s not sure how he does it and then he provides a really objective list of things the character has to be able to do and a list of questions about what kind of person would be able to do those things and would go into that career and on and on, and I have to say, I suspect that is not actually how he builds a character.

Then, we start to drill down: what did he do his thesis on? Where did he go to graduate school? Undergrad? Did he have loans to work off or did he have scholarships? You have to want to be an astrophysicist. … What drew our scientist to astrophysics and then to SETI? More interestingly, what choices were made to scale down the character’s ambition?—looking for aliens is a big, impossible ambition. What did our scientist decide to do that was possible and in the direction of that big, impossible goal? Oxygen detection on exoplanets? Radio analysis of signals?

You see? I think if you start off by saying, “I don’t know how I develop characters, I just do it,” then the above paragraph of questions with associated answers is probably not in your head at any point. Or not unless a reader asks you how you develop your characters and you have to come up with an answer.

I think that what’s really happening is, the characters steps onto the page as a gestalt. The author knows who that character is as a person and how that character views the world, and reacts to events, and positions himself in the world, without ever having to drill down like that. Objective background for the character is then filled in almost absent-mindedly, as the author happens to need it, while big things — what the character is like, who he is as a person, really big elements of his backstory — that stuff is already there.

When someone says, “I don’t really know how I come up with characters,” I think it sort of has to be something like that.

But what I really mean is, I think that’s pretty much how it works for me. If somebody asked me about this during a panel or workshop, I think my answer would have to be something like that. Maybe for Popkes, it’s quite different! I think one of the interesting things about posts like this is how they can spark a discussion that makes it clear that no, actually, a lot of authors do things VERY DIFFERENTLY. Maybe Popkes really is saying “I don’t know how I do it, but I totally outline a detailed backstory for my characters,” even though I can’t imagine how that would actually feel or how it would work.

Those of you who write, do you have a process by which you develop characters? Or do they step on stage as real people, already pretty much complete without a deliberate process? Or something in between that I’m failing to imagine?

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3 thoughts on “Oh, yeah, characters”

  1. I had to stop and think about this. I’m in the “not sure how I do it” camp as well.

    The easiest stories to write are ones where the character’s voice is just there in my head and all I’m doing is taking dictation. I suspect those characters have spent a lot of time lurking in the back of my head until they’re ready to take center stage.

    The hardest stories are those dratted characters who are coy/recalcitrant/somewhere-on-the-spectrum. They don’t want to talk, they just want me to understand them without any effort on their part. Argh. I often end up writing around them, describing the space around them rather than the characters themselves. Lots of revising with those stories.

    Looking back at what I just wrote, it probably sounds really strange to someone who doesn’t write. Maybe that’s why authors have trouble describing how they create characters–they don’t want people to think they’re completely demented.

  2. Demented or confused or just … *shrug.* I just do it. Any explanation is … kind of explaining around what I do, describing the space around what happens … see, I like your description of how that works!

  3. Once upon a time, I figured out what a character was by writing the story. The ENTIRE story. Once I had all the actions of the character in hand, I could look back and then revise in all the motives, which were immediately clear.

    Assuming I finished the story. I was very bad at that when I was 14 or so.

    I have improved in both respects.

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