Today’s topic was requested through one of my oldest pals, who happens to write characters as her job (cool sounding job!). I believe she writes technical copy for software programs, in an attempt to understand how and why customers might buy their products. She had some great questions for me, regarding what my process is for figuring out what my characters are like and/or whether I base them on real-life people. She also had some fantastic feedback about how reading this blog was like reading a character in my life story, which, let’s face it, is the most touching thing I’ve heard this millennium!
So after considering it a bit, I realized that I try to come up with the idea for the story first, and then I ask what kinds of characters are needed to make the story work. If the story is more plot-driven, I’m going to consider the strength of character to be paramount, because plot-driven stories can’t take off when you’ve got a weak character. However, if the plot is driven more by a message I’m trying to get across, then the characters might get away with being less than striking; the message takes time to build, like a chess game that you’re playing with the reader. You give them a pawn or two, building up momentum, while your bishop slides diagonally closer, eventually succumbing to their rook, but they hadn’t seen your knight as it suddenly appears, blocking their Queen. Everything they thought they’d known has just been turned on its head — suddenly they see their King has no way out. Bam! You deliver the message; checkmate. This kind of plot takes some easing into, and your characters are merely messengers, acting as necessary to get that message across.
And then you have plots that are character-driven, which is the other way around. I’m always drawn to the juxtaposition: think fiery young Mattie Ross, pitted against the bumbling, aging Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1968) by Charles Portis; consider neat-freak Felix Unger, holed up in an apartment with the hygienically-negligent Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (1965). This dynamic works because it allows the reader to learn about the characters just by having them react to each other. In these cases, it’s mostly all about showing, and not telling, and it can create opportunities for buzzing dialog while the plot just rolls on. It’s fun to write when you have a juxtaposition. So try it — put a conspiracy theorist with a lackadaisical hippy, or a brainiac scientist with a lofty poet. The plot in a character-driven story is not always the most important thing — exactly how the two opposites are thrown together is not nearly as important as what ensues once they are. And the best part about writing these characters is that everybody knows a Felix Unger, or maybe they’re the Oscar Madison of their social circle. We know what it’s like to be annoyed, or to be the annoying one, which is why it’s so easy to get emotionally invested in the juxtaposition. Polar opposites are memorable simply because they’re polar opposites (just think, would Lorelei Gilmore’s story be so endearing if she didn’t have to run away from the staunch and humorless Emily Gilmore when she was sixteen?).
Once you decide on your plot, then it’s time to hone in on those characters. So how do we create great characters? There are really so many ways to do this, that you’re never without options for tools to use. I really enjoy the character questionnaires in K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises for Planning Your Best Book (PenForASword Publishing, 2014). Basically what Weiland does is asks you to get to know who you’re writing about, before you even attempt to write anything. This is a technique often used in creative writing workshops, as well; if you feel like you’re getting stuck writing a character, try writing a side piece from their perspective. Not as part of your story, but as a supplement to it, like a diary entry written by them, in first person. How would that character react to a good situation? What about a bad one? Give them a random event or two: they lose their job (how do they react?) then they go home and find their spouse in a tryst with the neighbor (then how do they react?). Once you complete this side exercise, try going back to your manuscript again and writing. Hopefully, you should be able to feel a bit more comfortable with how that character might behave, or what he or she would say.
Another thing that is important, for any writer, is giving their character detail. Details are like seasonings, in that they can take the flattest story out there and breathe life into it. You need to put a little bit everywhere, not a lot in one big spoonful. And there’s not much that is superfluous — if you think that what happened to your character that fateful summer spent at camp forty years ago still impacts their life today somehow, then write it. If you know that your character keeps a jar of lotion in the drawer of her nightstand, next to some photograph that she gazes upon every night, then write it. What are the character’s motivations? What were his/her parents like? Were they careless dictators, pushing them constantly toward achievement, only to make themselves look good? Or did they let the nanny raise them, barely involving themselves at all? Your character’s background is important, because it gives them a depth that’s necessary for a reader to believe them. The reader will likely not believe that a woman would kill her children, for instance — but give them the backdrop of a slave’s life in Civil War-era America, a la Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and it starts to make more sense.
This is the part about being a writer that’s not just challenging, but exciting. It’s like a little game that you’re playing with your reader, and it’s a game they want you to win. Your job is to entertain them, to tell them a story. Just how far will they let you take them? A good writer can get them to see the plausible, but a great writer can get them to believe the impossible.