This is a revised version of a blog I posted in September of 2007. I’ve highlighted the additions and changes, and added comments for clarity. Hope you enjoy!
I’ve been reading a new text book (sounds fun, huh?) for the Creative Writing class I’ll be teaching beginning in October. It’s full of the usual stuff, but it has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about the process of creating believable people and situations – pulling these creations out of my head and my heart and breathing life into them on a computer screen or sheets of white paper.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend a lot of great writing workshops and conferences and to hear many exceedingly talented writers speak (and significantly more of them now since I wrote this). While certain parts of the writing process are unique to each writer, there are some things that hold true to nearly all, and one of those is the need to bring the characters we create into a real existence for the reader.
There are any number of ways to achieve this. Some writers do extensive character worksheets, digging around to find their characters’ favorite foods, greatest fears, most embarrassing moment, or treasured object. Some writers talk to their characters, asking them questions about what the character thinks is important or conducting an interview of sorts. And in some cases, the characters themselves take the lead and begin spilling information to the writer. Weird as it sounds, it really does happen, and there needn’t be any tequila involved in the process (actually, tequila rather hinders the process, but a nice glass of wine isn’t always a bad idea!)
I use a combination approach. I like to start with the worksheets, though mine are not too detailed. Then I will ask the characters to tell me what they think is important for me to begin their stories. If they don’t offer up too much information, I’ll ask questions to dig up the details. It is wonderful when one of the characters takes control of the conversation, but it’s not common for most of my stories. (As with most things in writing, every writer has a different experience, and even then, some writers have a different experience with each new book.)
Once I feel I have enough background, I start looking at the circumstances my character is dealing with. Has he or she discovered the dilemma yet, or has he or she just started looking at the world I’ve built for him or her? I like to “observe” my characters in their day-to-day life. One workshop I attended said that it is important to know what happens before page one – in other words – understand your characters well enough to know what their life was like before you showed up. Then I try to add dimension to this new person in my life. Since there is no such thing as a perfect person, one who is completely good, and no such thing as a truly evil person (even Jeffrey Dahmer had a mom who played peek-a-boo with him), characters have to have a combination of good and bad qualities to make them believable. We all have skeletons in our closets, we all have our little foibles and idiosyncrasies, and the characters we create should have them, too. There is nothing worse than reading a book where the main character is just too (fill in the blank). This character never rings true because too much emphasis has been put on making him or her “perfect” in some way, over the top with sarcasm, or sadness, or innocence, or whatever, which renders that character completely flat, unbelievable, and pointless. For examples, email me or leave me a message here! I’ve got a collection of books that demonstrate this point precisely.(I teach a workshop called Building Believable Bad Guys – it’s about making characters who are the antagonist in a story into realistic people.)
Some writers will try to “show” the character to the reader through witty dialog, forcing words into the character’s mouth that come out sounding staged and ridiculous (again, I’ve got examples). Some writers try to use action to the same end, giving descriptions in minute detail about every facial muscle and its related, exaggerated movement. Creating real characters, believable characters requires a balance between these, and other techniques.
With all of this in mind, I’ve been revising some things, and revisiting my approach to making these people in my head come to life. It’s a lot of fun to discover new ways of molding these ideas and images into lifelike, credible people with great stories to tell. I’m eager to see how my students do, too.