Writing professionally necessitates the performance of linguistic/syntactical/genre-ic acrobatics, as you have to be able to write in a variety of modes, producing products as varied as reviews, articles, instruction manuals, press releases, and SOPs. It requires the creation of quality, well-communicated material, even when you aren’t particularly excited about the project at hand.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a favorite genre. In my nerdy little writer heart, it is the novel which stands unequivocally enthroned as the beloved. I was thirteen when I wrote my first one. Years later, now in my
early late twenties, I’m writing them still.
But not every season can be one for storytelling. For a variety of reasons, this particular moment has me working exclusively on non-fiction projects. For the next few months, I’ll need to eschew my passion for fiction and devote my active writing time to less-fanciful projects.
But my inactive writing time–my thinking time as I mull over ideas, developing and refining them as I shower or cook or exercise–is a different story. I may not be producing chapters, or writing dialogue, but I’m spending lots of time with my characters. Asking them questions, letting them confide in me, inviting them to unveil themselves further.
In short, I’ve become semi-schizophrenic.
But sharing my headspace–and the embarrassment that comes when you realize a real human being is staring at you expectantly because s/he has said something you missed because of the ongoing dialogue in your head–is a worthwhile sacrifice. Because your characters are the glue that holds your story together. If your readers don’t find them believable/sympathetic/compelling, they won’t continue reading your story. And if you don’t understand your characters, if they don’t prick you with some emotion–love, compassion, abhorrence–then the story you pen around them will never be as engaging as it might’ve been.
But how to develop these beings who are ever-so-crucial, but whose core is nothing more substantial than imagination? Every writer has his/her own quiver of techniques, developed over time and via trial and error. Here are a few of mine:
Though it can be easy to forget, the truth is this: the world is already full of interesting characters just ready to be mined. Daily human interaction is an valuable source of inspiration. In my last two manuscripts–one a YA novel, one historical fiction–I based a character on someone in my life. In my YA story, WaterProof, the model was one of my college roommates. In Prohibited, my historical novel, my main character’s best friend was based on one of my childhood best friends (you know who you are!) I wound up liking this latter character so well, I’ve actually considered writing a sequel featuring her as the protagonist. Basing a character on a person from real life is by no means the only way to skin the character-creating-cat–I’ve never used this technique to create a central character–but I’m convinced that my aforementioned Prohibited character was so vivid because she reflected her progenitor’s own vivacity. It lent her sparkle and depth she might otherwise have lacked.
Sometimes the plot is its own active, demanding creative force, working like water-based erosion to shape the figures within it. In Prohibited, this was certainly the case for my protagonist. It seems counterproductive to share spoilers for my own novel, so I’ll only say that Prohibited is a 1920s retelling of a medieval legend. To adhere to my legend’s storyline, I needed my protagonist Ivy to land herself in a certain sticky situation–a situation without which there could be no novel. To trap herself in this particular mire (yet remain sympathetic), she had to be self-sacrificing and loyal, but also hungry for independence. Thus the core of her character was dictated by the storyline’s needs. The rest of her personality could grow and develop in any variety of directions from this point. But these essential qualities of her person–as demanded by my plot–could not have changed without the entire novel collapsing.
Ultimately, character-creating methods no.1 and 2 are just jumping off points, the first snap of sparks into kindling. It’s all well and good to decide that Ivy’s core quality is self-sacrifice. But if she doesn’t have motivations or fears, hobbies or a favorite food, she is nothing more than a one-dimensional ideal. Unless you’re Edmund Spenser writing The Faerie Queene, a bare ideal does not a character make. Thus I use an interview-style tool to further develop major primary and secondary characters, heroes and villains alike. What began as a simple questionnaire that included queries like eye color and story goal has grown into a monstrous character dossier than can be up to 4.5 pages when filled out (using single-spaced, size 11 font). Some of the questions I ask my characters are pretty random–What’s your favorite outfit? Daily routine? Hot button issue?–and their answers may never make it into the actual novel. But all of these little details are what make real people textured, unique, well-rounded. These are the things you know about your siblings, spouses, and friends. Sprinkling such facts throughout a novel adds realism and specificity to what could otherwise be sterile or bland. And occasionally, these little gems transform into unexpected plot points. When I gave Ivy a sweet tooth–one partial to ice cream–it was the most casual of decisions. It wasn’t until I began writing the manuscript that I realized this personality quirk would lead her to an ice cream parlor where a critical plot point would occur.
Sometimes characters are cooperative, and obligingly emerge fully-formed. Other times, they are elusive and slippery, a challenge to create. But there is perhaps nothing more satisfying than those moments when I hear a character tell me I’ve written him wrong, that instead he would say X, or do Y. That’s when I know my character has come into his own, that my hands aren’t the only ones carrying my story. That’s when I know I’m truly in-sync with what I’m writing.
Of course, what seems like serenity in a writer’s head may appear as insanity to the outside observer. After I finished my MA, I had the pleasure of writing full-time for a year while my husband completed his pre-China job training. Once he came home from class to find me deeply distressed because I’d spent the day writing the scene where I offed one of my characters.
“I just feel so guilty,” I said. “Here, I’ve created this person, carefully crafted him, spent months with him. And now I’ve betrayed him, writing him into this terrible, painful corner and killing him!”
He gave me a long look. Then he said,
“I think you need to get out today. Talk to some real people.”
He might’ve had a point.