One of my blogging goals for 2016 is to “show my work.” Last week, I wrote about how to brainstorm a book idea; this week, I’d like to share how I create characters.
Whether I write historical fiction, YA literary fiction, or short stories, my trademark is writing from multiple perspectives. So my first step is determining the number of perspective characters, and if there are going to be any main characters who aren’t given their own viewpoint on the story. (I did this with one of the main characters in Waist; Katia, the younger sister to secondary protagonist Hannah, is so transparent on the page that I didn’t think she needed her own perspective to get her point across. She turned out to be my most fun character to write.) If I’m writing a historical novel, I also do some research before I start creating characters, so I can get a sense of the mentalities, morals and habits of the time.
Once I’ve collected some data, I start by writing character studies. I like the very basic ones that Scrivener provides in its fiction framework, but I add to them, doubling the number of total questions. Some of my favorite additional material includes:
“What is his/her question?” (Example: Will she return to Russia, or stay with her abusive/indifferent family?)
“What is his/her secret?” (Example: She loves being engaged, but doesn’t really want to get married.)
“What is his/her song?” (Example: I gave one of my favorite orchestral pieces, “Overture to Candide,” to one of my highest-energy characters.)
“What is his/her Myers-Briggs type?” (Example: The character Billy in Waist is an ESTJ, because he’s extroverted, lives in the moment, decides with his brain over his heart, and is judgmental of others’ decisions.)
For Blizzard, I added: “Where is he/she trapped?” because all of the main characters become stuck in different places during the storm.
Once I’ve created the questions, I supply the answers. This is the most fun part. Occasionally I get stuck and just write something to fill the space. Most of the time, I end up surprising myself as a vision of a character emerges almost without effort. That’s the creative process at its best.
Then I just start writing. In my rough draft, my characters are there on the page, but it takes several drafts to get them to really show themselves through every action and word of dialogue.
I’ve been invested lately in how other novelists developed their characters. If this is a subject that interests you, I highly recommend reading (or re-reading) Gone With The Wind. I’m reading it again (audiating it, actually; it’s a 48 hour-long Audible recording) for the first time since I was in sixth grade and my dad challenged me to finish it so I could watch the movie with him. Margaret Mitchell puts all of her characters so firmly on the page. Even very minor side characters get a description within the text. That’s one of the reasons the book is so incredibly long, but it also “shows her work” on character in a hugely instructive way. I’m learning a lot from her as I listen/read!
Fiction writers, how do you create characters? What’s your process?
Fiction readers, what do you look for in a character? What makes you identify with certain ones?