Over on Comet Tales, Stephanie Osborn has a bunch of writers talking about elements of modern storytelling. She wanted to know how we created characters. This was my take on it.
Writers think a lot about characters.
We think about them in the abstract, and we think about those individuals who rent an apartment in our subconscious and start rummaging around, looking for utility hookups and how to arrange forwarding on their mail. Sometimes they are just visiting for a few months or years.
Other times they move in and don’t check out until we do.
I ended up in the so-called genre areas for very specific reasons. The foremost of those reasons is that I read for interesting characters dealing with a plot that draws me into a world. It can be a version of our modern world, as when I read any of the excellent twists and turns on Sherlock Holmes (you can sample Laurie King, Carole Nelson Douglas, or Stephanie Osborn’s take on him just for starters.) It can be a left turn in our own worlds, contemporary or historical. My Night Calls fantasy novels set in North America circa 1810 could fall into this category. Laura Anne Gilman’s Retrievers or PUPI crime scene investigators are mystery-fantasies that are contemporary in nature. Her New York is not our New York (or is it?) but we recognize much about it.
I also prefer SF and fantasy because sometimes you can get people to think about important things if you introduce them to the idea in a fantastic story. There is subtlety and strength in metaphor.
Lately I have been thinking about new ways to build characters. I’m building a checklist of questions for your characters that I think might be a revealing place to start. In the meantime, David Mamet has come up with several questions that can help you narrow down why a character is in your story. I’m using them to help me with my next book.
The questions are:
1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if he (she) doesn’t get it?
3. Why now?
It’s very easy to get swept up in world building and character building. Most of us have met at least one person who has binders and binders of notes about a world they are creating. There’s a danger to too much of that work. You get so enthralled with the condiments of your world, you forget about the main course. Spices and crushed herbs add to your story, and will help make it memorable. (It is how you tell the story that counts. There are almost no new ideas—only new combinations and slants. When it’s unique to you, it will be unique to the reader, too.) But where is the protein, the special fats that will give your reader sustenance?
Mamet’s questions get down to the heart of “what makes your character tick?”
Who wants what from whom?
Even the most altruistic people want something. They want to be loved, appreciated, rewarded for work they have done, recognized for their efforts. They want security, they want power, and they want wealth. They want their children to be safe, well-educated, have good jobs, meet the right spouse.
You may (and should) have more than one thing going on in a story. But you should have a dominant story line and a protagonist, and you should start there. I’m a firm believer in if the supporting story is coming on strong and the main plot is not, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist to carry the ball. It’s all right if the main plot is letting you get a handle on the supporting tales. But if the main plot just refuses to show up? It may not be time for that story—or the story your subconscious wants to tell may be a different story!
Who is tucked behind your forehead, telling you a story or perhaps lurking there, waiting for the opportunity to speak? What is so important that it begins to drive them through this portion of their life? Is it something new that has dropped from the sky, and unlucky protagonist, she happened to catch it? Is it an old fear or incident come back to haunt her? Is everything good about to unravel in her life? Or is a streak of bad luck about to end…and be careful what you ask for?
Who is on the other side of the equation? Are they a willing participant in the story to come, or are they dragged along in the wake? Are they willing to help the protagonist, or will they fight?
What happens if they don’t get it?
If you are writing character and plot-driven fiction, “what happens” should be important. This is not “if I don’t get the soufflé to rise, dinner is ruined” plotting. This is “If dinner doesn’t gel, the Venusian Ambassador may eat his attaché, thus an interstellar incident erupts in my home” territory. And the ambassador eating his attaché should be only the beginning. When the ambassador later gives birth to a spanking new baby Venusian born with the memories of the eaten attaché, and people start plotting to place that infant in a position of power, you’ll know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
So you need a person who wants something, probably from someone or something, and you need consequences if your protagonist doesn’t get it. If the McGuffin isn’t delivered by Friday, your heroine loses her soul. Which vial is actually missing from the deep freeze at the CDC, and what happens if the microorganism cuts loose? A tourist has been injected with an unstable explosive that will turn them into a human bomb within 24 hours. And your lover is on the same plane (this could work for any of the three!).
It must matter to the protagonist—and you must make it matter to the reader.
What makes story a novel? One thing is that the story has a beginning and an end. Good fiction gives you the illusion of both history and a future for your characters. It’s hard to care about a symbolic everyman or everywoman, but if s/he’s written well enough, you will slot yourself into their life for a brief moment. In a novel, you have the chance to observe or be someone else—just for a while. You can sample more lives than you can ever live yourself, more adventures, more puzzles to solve, more thrills to experience—a book will take you anywhere you want to go. If it won’t get you where you want to go? Write the story yourself.
A story has a build to it, a rising action that must peak and ebb until the final rise into a climax and coda. (Yes, it’s not your sneaky mind; there is an echo of foreplay and consummation to a good story.) The best stories give you weight—they pin a tale to a place and time so that you can smell the street vended rolls, taste the hint of salt from sea water creeping into the water table, hear the free musicians outside the music hall, feel the river mist against your skin as you greet the pale dawn light. A classic tale can be transported to another place and time, but the elements that make it riveting should be transportable with it.
What are usually transportable are the characters and their inter-relationships. We recognize the scalpel of Sherlock Holmes’s intelligence, the brilliant madness of Professor Moriarty, the compassion and empathy of Doctor Watson, no matter where we drop them and how they look on the outside. If their names are different we may still refer to them by those symbolic names, because we know their core, what they stand for—we know what they want and how they will respond if they don’t get what they want. In their purest forms they become archetypes, and we use them to build new worlds.
You can diagram any decent story using these suggestions. See if you can distill some of your favorites in this game. With a series of books, you will probably find several “What do they want?” answers—what is their core response, why they are driven to go on, and why this particular adventure at this time.
With my character Alfreda Sorensson in Night Calls, Kindred Rites, and Spiral Path, we have a young girl who discovers that not only was she born of a line of great magic-users—she is one of the chosen. It’s a calling, and a dangerous one—her mother apparently resisted the call. But Allie sees it as Hobson’s choice—she must be trained, and there must be trained people to protect loved ones from being eaten by the Dark Side and its creatures. The magic has bloomed; there is no time to lose. In Night Calls, the sudden appearance of magic late, at 11, means they rush to get her into training, even as she is already attracting the attention of dark creatures. In Kindred Rites Alfreda runs up against a family of sorcerers who think that an untrained child of power would be a good thing to add to their family tree. Her kidnapping means now is the time for the tale. And in Spiral Path, Alfreda has to learn ritual magic quickly to protect her from control by powerful entities. That means joining the exclusive school of elusive Cousin Esme.
In my Nuala science fiction, I have characters who are dealing with crises of succession and war, of treason and skullduggery. Men and women alike are trying to protect those they love and solve problems before those problems come home to roost. In Fires of Nuala, a beautiful free trader (i.e. high end thief) named Darame has come to Nuala to help steal obscene wealth—but others have come to overthrow a government. She is forced to help the surviving heir hang onto his power to prove the innocence of those she loves. In Hidden Fires Darame has made a very good life for herself on Nuala. She found the wealth she thought she wanted, but also the family she never had—and she plies her talents to protect them, whatever the cost to her. She will protect them even when her own past catches up with her from an unexpected quarter. In Fire Sanctuary the distant descendants of the previous books deal with intergalactic betrayal and war. They have little time to protect themselves and consolidate their resources and power. And there is a price for the support of unexpected allies.
Examine your favorite books. Who wants what from whom? What happens if s/he doesn’t get it? Why now?