I read a number of writing blogs—that is, blogs in which the blogger gives his or her views on the process of writing. (For one of the better ones, see Dex-Raven, in the Links section.) Although the entire process is complex and varied, some themes crop up repeatedly—how to maintain tension, how to write an attention-getting opening, how to revise. By far the most common, however, is the question of how to construct characters.
It’s a great question! It’s also one of the most challenging parts of writing fiction. Why? Because your characters, essentially, are you. Your main character, your protagonist, is the character that (most of the time) you, the writer, will identify most strongly with. He or she will reflect what you see in yourself, or alternately, what you wish to see in yourself; and that holds true even if you bring in the occasional characteristic that you don’t like at all, or can’t imagine in yourself. The fact is, it’s very hard to write a complex character that doesn’t some common ground with your own experience and your own character qualities.
I often come across statements like this one:
“I didn’t know this character was going to turn out this way!”
“I had to see what she would do in that situation.”
Or (my favorite):
“The character was there, and I had to discover what he would be like.”
Sensing a common theme here? You should. It’s this idea that the characters already exist, rather than that they are being created by you, the writer; that instead of picking their characteristics, you’re discovering them. It’s a common refrain voiced by writer after writer after writer. I’ve used it myself, many times.
And you say, it’s bullshit.
The part you may not believe is this: I believe you! I agree completely. It really is. And yet I say it anyway. To understand why, I have to deconstruct it.
The truth is, you do create your characters. That is not, however, the same thing as saying that you have complete creative control. Characters are a result of a wide and varying number of factors, not all of which are within your control. Yes, in the case of your protagonist (and maybe others, too), you draw from your own self-image; but, what about your life experiences? Your perception of others? Your mood at the time of writing? All of these things factor in.
There are other factors, as well, even more subjective than this, and sometimes particular to the piece of writing. For example, it’s not uncommon to start a character with a physical impression; and in this visual age, chances are the impression is cribbed from a character from TV or a movie. It’s very likely that that character’s non-physical traits will also factor into your character’s, well, character. In my current project, I have a character that was inspired by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in the film Premium Rush (excellent movie, btw). Almost unintentionally, I gave him some of the traits of that character—his earnestness, reliability, and impulsiveness—and though it wasn’t what I set out to do, I sense that it’s the right direction for that character. It plays well in the story I’m writing.
How about the setting in which you are doing the writing? Cyndera is fond of saying that she pulls bits of story from her surroundings, which is why she does much of her writing in public. As I write this post, I’m sitting at the local McDonald’s, my “office away from home”, as I sometimes say. Snippets of conversations, people you see, current conditions—all of these things factor into your writing in general, and your characters in particular. And so many of these things are beyond your control.
But I have a theory about why we who write use those terms of discovery—three theories, actually. Why do we say we are discovering our characters instead of creating them, when deep down we know that it isn’t true? For one, it really feels as though we are discovering them—after all, not all the pieces will be in place at first, and some won’t come along until the right circumstances occur. And for two, it’s scary! It’s frightening to realize that you have a story idea, but it may not work out the way you planned—in fact, your character, whom you love, may end up not being the person you expected him (or her) to be. That notion, that you don’t know the end from the beginning, is enough to put some writers off from writing.
Don’t let that happen to you. You see, there’s a third theory. I believe we do this because it allows us, the writers, to share in the mystery. Your characters—if well-written—will be a mystery to your readers. They won’t know what is to come, or what that individual will be like. When we cast it this way in our own minds and our own speech, we share in that mystery…we, like our readers, come to see our characters as real people. And real people are gloriously, amazingly unpredictable—that’s why we are so fascinated with them, even in the Facebook age. So go ahead—let your characters be a mystery, even to you. They’ll be much better for it—and so will you.