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Friday, December 08, 2006


How do people create characters?

This is a really interesting one, because different writers have entirely different ideas on the subject.

Some people, for example, work out life histories, motivations and so on all in advance before they start the characters going. Personally I can't do this: that always feels like a biography of somebody I've never met, just dead facts on a page. But some writers swear by it.

Other writers say that characters just come into their heads and start talking. Either they're using the definition differently or that doesn't happen for me either. Some characters I find easy to write; I quickly know what they're likely to say in response to things, I can imagine them clearly while they're speaking, and so on. I wonder sometimes if that's what people mean when they say characters speak to them, but it might be something different. My characters don't speak to me, for one thing: they aren't aware of me. They speak to each other. But sometimes when I'm on form I can think of what they'd say to each other pretty much instantaneously. I still wouldn't quite call that speaking, though, because it's me who thinks of everything and the characters don't feel external to that; it's all just talking to myself. The other qualifier is that I don't always go with the first thing the character 'says' in my head. That can lead to two-dimensional characters. Sometimes I consider what my first impulse is, and then have them do something different, so as to avoid getting simplistic. I can't in conscience say characters are speaking to me if I can say to them 'No, you didn't say that, say something less predictable,' and have them obey me - try that in real life and see where it gets you. So if anyone does feel that characters speak to them, I'd love to hear a more detailed description of how it works, because I'm always wondering.

I go by a method a friend of mine refers to as 'a rag, a bone and a hank of hair'. The quote is from Kipling's The Vampire, and while it doesn't necessarily mean vampire-raising, I find it a rather good expression, because I have to manufacture my characters from scraps.

Here's how it works: I can imagine a character in the abstract, but without any kind of sense of them. I have to see them move. Once I've seen them move, I've got their rhythm, and I know how they're likely to behave henceforth. For example, the short story 'Plain Useless' on this blog, the character of Gerry worked because I saw him open a caravan door with his hair half-combed. That was how he moved, and after that I could keep him moving.

A longer example. In my B-word novel (see FAQ if you don't know why I'm calling it that), the character of Ally, who was meant to be a walk-on, started working in my head because I put together three things: the image of him fidgeting in his chair; the heroine's reply to him praising a particular weapon ('Fat lot of good that'll be sighting in the dark, is what I think, but then I'm just a girl'); and the fact that at the end of their first conversation, in which she discusses a case with him and tells him she has a new boyfriend, he refers to an old bet they've made (that he'll shave his head if he loses), takes some scissors and cuts a big chunk off the end of his hair. That, worked out abstractly, told me what I needed to know about him: that he's a restless person, basically uncomfortable in himself but trying to ignore it; that his relationship with the heroine (which involves a complicated and not very happy sexual past) includes a considerable underlying sexual tension that's more about fronting up to each other than about attraction; that he's impulsive; that he's tense enough to do something drastic to himself for the sake of making a gesture; that the heroine has more of an ability to upset him than she believes; and that underneath the anxiety, he's angry.

I can work all that out now I've finished the book, but the adjectives weren't driving the character at the time. It was more as if I'd randomly strummed a chord on the guitar (I can't actually play guitar, but I've seen it done), and could henceforth improvise a song because I'd established the key and the basic sound of it. Hence, a rag, a bone and a hank of hair: get a few pieces and I can assemble the rest in harmony with them. It doesn't have to be physical details: the two protagonists of the novel I'm currently working on each have a foundation sentence rather than a foundation gesture. (I'll tell you when I've finished the book, but talking about work in progress is like going out in your underwear). But it has to be something concrete.

What does it feel like to create characters? I know how it feels for me; as to other people, well, guys, I'm looking to you to inform me.

Interesting question!

I think for me they often just walk on stage and announce themselves. Or don't, which is how come ideas rattle around in my brain in search of a character a lot of the time.

I'm noodling a Fantasy idea at the moment, and so far I have two characters for it. The protagonist came complete with his name and his role in the story but no real visual. Another is very visual to me, I can see him in my mind, but I had to work for the name. His character's very clear to me: he's a bitter man, and only needs a slight push to turn vicious, but a push in the other direction could save him.

Funnily enough, when I'm thinking "what would my character do in this situation?" very often I just get a vision of him in my head. It may not even be a visual that has anything to do with the scene under consideration, but it gives me "him", if that makes sense. If I can see him just leaning on a fence or running his hand through his hair, or pulling a face, then I know what he'll do. Other characters refuse to come through in clear, and I have to work hard to get them to do stuff. And boy do they argue!

One of my favourite characters is someone who started out as a minor character but slowly became more and more real to me, and more interesting. Until finally he worked his way into the story in a big way. It was hilarious for me to go back and take a lot of bit characters who played various parts and make them all into this one character, without the protagonist realising it's the same guy who keeps cropping up. Until finally he DOES realise and their relationship shifts.

I can't do the whole "answer a questionnaire about your character" sthick either.
I've had an odd mix of both methods. When I first start out, I definetely need focus. I need details. I want to know the person's middle name, what they carry in their purse or wallet, and why they might run away screaming if someone shoves a gummi bear in their face. However, once I've got these details down and actually start in on the story, I rarely go back and look at that info. I certainly let the story and the characters themselves be shaped by their actions. Often I'm very surprised by how they end up, or what they do or say. Sometimes I'm not. And more often than not, I end up with a lot of characters who were minor becoming very important to the story, or ones that I decide to kill off or diminish their role because...well..it feels right to do so (or they just deserve to die). That's how most of my writing structure works. I give myself a skeleton, and then the rest remains fluid.

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