R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORY-TELLING:
WAT R WERDS?
2. Living Vicariously Through Imaginary People
Good Morning, class! Welcome back! I think I see a few new faces out there. Wonderful. The subject of today’s lecture is character creation and I swear before the four right hands of Lord Shiva, Caroline, if you don’t put that phone away, I will eat it right in front of you. And then I will slap my stomach until I dial that phone and call that phone’s phone and when its tiny little phone babies answer, I will tell them Mommy Phone isn’t coming home because Caroline wouldn’t stop texting in class!
Thank you. Let’s begin. Characters.
I think we can all agree that creating believable characters is the penultimate thing a writer can do for his or her book, second only to editing. Even the story you are telling is not as important, in my opinion, as the characters through which you are telling it. And I’m not just talking about the protagonist here. It isn’t enough just to want what the hero wants; the reader has to feel what the hero feels, and more than that, fear/hate the antagonist, fall in the love with the love interest, laugh at the comic relief and, most important of all, shake hands with all of them on the last page and walk away as friends.
And let’s face it, a book is the very worst way to go about it. There’s a reason no one makes text adventure games anymore. It’s easy to make an audience fall in love with the hero when you can show them sexy abs and a roguish wink. There is a very real, very broad degree of separation when you are reduced to simply talking about it. Without, I might, the benefit of gestures, facial expression or tonal emphasis to augment your words. How, then, does one go about creating characters that live and breathe through a medium that is as inherently lifeless as plain text?
When addressing this subject in an American literature class, William Faulkner had this to say: I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the ingestion and then the gestation. You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical.
And while me and ol’ Bill don’t always see eye to eye on what makes a good story, in the above regard, he is dead right. Writing is work, don’t get me wrong, and that work is not always easy, but if you find yourself struggling to force a character to do what you want him to do, you might want to take a step back and really ask yourself why. It’s been my personal experience that if your characters have stopped talking to you, it’s because you’ve done something to piss them off. I mean, sure we fight anyway, but we stay together because the story is worth telling.
So getting to know your character is paramount and the first step to doing that is to create one, preferably one you won’t mind living with for a while, because the two of you (or ten of you, or thirty of you, or however many characters inhabit your book’s world) are about to be on some extremely intimate terms. But how do you do that?
Well, sometimes you get lucky and a character will leap out of your forehead, fully-armored and spear in hand, but far more often, you have to work at it. Personally, I’m a very visual writer. I rarely imagine a scene with words at all. More often, I ‘see’ it in my mind like a movie and just try to describe what I’m seeing. So when I start to write on a book, very often, it begins with several days of me just sitting quietly, getting to know my characters. I ought to be embarrassed of how many times I’ve started a book with no notion at all of what’s going to happen, I just follow the characters and trust they’ll take me to where the story is.
Having said that, I feel like I need to stop right now and tell you there are many ways to describe a character and physical appearance is the very least of them. So many new writers invest so much page-space to how their characters, especially their protagonist, looks…and too often, it seems to be done solely so the reader gets the point that the character looks ‘cool’.
Having a distinctive appearance is by no means a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of a character’s development. It certainly shouldn’t be what you want the reader to remember best about your book. This goes double for how your character dresses. Even in steampunk stories, a whalebone corset with clockwork accessories and an octopus embroidered in copper thread on the stomacher is no substitution for a personality. When in that first blush of creation, by all means, jot down the broad strokes of how you see your character, but if you don’t know what color her eyes are or whether he dresses to the right or the left, don’t dwell on it. Maybe you’ll ‘see’ it later on in the process and maybe you won’t. Forget ‘What does she look like?’ and focus on the real things you want your readers to remember. How does her mind work? When scripting her dialogue, take a little time to show the reader what she thinks before she talks. The two don’t always agree in real life; nor should they in books. What does she say and how does she say it? And then what does she do? How does she react to others? How do others react to her? And especially, how does she react to herself?
So we’re all agreed: An emotional description is of far more value than a physical one. And as a general rule, major characters should have stronger and more rounded personalities than minor ones. Okay, yeah, we all get that, but how do we do it? On my bookshelf, I have a copy of The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. Seriously, look into these. Any time I find myself leaning too heavily on one trait, I look it up and boom, instant list of positive and negative aspects of that trait, as well as possible reasons for having developed it, examples of thought processes and commonly associated behaviors, and traits in other characters that could bring out the best or worst in them. These are the things that turn a character’s static personality into a many-layered personality profile.
Yeah, we’re getting into the real writer’s talk now, aren’t we? Look up how to create characters in fiction and you’ll get more than 12,000,000 hits. Granted, most of these are porn. But look into the rest of them and you’ll see a lot of recurring themes that all seem to use the same powerpoint words.
We hear a lot about dynamic characters, those who change and grow over the course of a story, versus static characters, who are more fixed in their mold, usually with the strong suggestion that dynamic = good, static = bad. As writers, we are constantly pushed to develop characters that are complex and full of hidden depths and conflicts that go tumbling around like rocks in the river of your plot, until they come out at the end, far from where they started and a little worn down, but polished. Well, at the risk of pissing in that river, I say that’s the wrong way to think about it.
True, your characters should grow and change along their own story arc as the book progresses. They should always act on and react to developments in the plot, but they should also be recognizably the same character that readers met and back in the beginning of their journey. So instead of thinking about dynamic and static characters, think about dynamic and static character traits. Amber, from my own The Last Hour of Gann, has strength as her main personality trait. She is stubborn, independent and strong-willed to a fault. Over the course of the book, she had to lose everything she had always used as a measure of her own strength: her home, her family, her health, herself. She had to let go of her crippling need to do everything herself, to ask for help and, most difficult of all for her, accept it even when she didn’t ask. And as she did so, (hopefully) her stubbornness became steadfastness and she changed from someone who thought she couldn’t depend on anyone but herself to someone others could depend on, and she learned that two people together will always be stronger than two people apart. None of these traits changed, exactly, but they did evolve, and it’s important to remember that evolution never happens for no reason.
In books, as in life, while all people possess the power to change, they tend not to unless they have no other choice. People grow only when there’s room to grow, and usually the reason there’s suddenly all this room is because something else was violently removed. Think about that while you’re creating your character, considering not only all the character has to do, but all they have to lose. Over the course of nine novels, my heroes have lost homes, parents, children, friends, lovers…hell, their home worlds, their humanity, their faith, their innocence, their honor, and even their lives. A character’s journey is not and should not be an easy one by any means, not for the reader and not for the writer.
So why do we do it? Why, when it’s so easy to just dip into the collective pool of conscious symbolism, grab a stereotype, slap a name on it, and just move on? Well, I’ll tell you why. When you take out that crisp white sheet of paper—
—or open up that brand new document (happy? Sheesh), you have the power to shape a person out of a jumble of letters and breathe life into them, life so rich and vibrant that total strangers will also be able to see them and hear them…hate them and fall in love with them…cheer for them and grieve for them and in no small way own them and be owned by them. When you write, you invite readers to open up a book and climb inside, to shed themselves and live instead within these completely imaginary lives, and by doing so, enrich their own, and goddamn, that is magic.