Oh, yeah. Characters.

(Picture from here.)

The 1978 Clarion Workshop Rules for Writing:

  • Use other words
  • In a different order, too
  • Oh, yeah. Characters.

A while back I talked a bit about my writing process. I left out how I create characters. Sure enough, one of my two readers asked me about it.

So, I hemmed and hawed. Turned on them ferociously. Whistled and tried to walk nonchalantly out of the room.

All because I’m not sure how I do it.

Remember I discussed a given take on an idea. This was an approach or method. A take almost always involves people doing something with that idea. People who have some kind of vested stake in the outcome of what is going one. This gives me the shape of a character.

Some people call that a role but it’s not like that. A role is something that someone plays or a set of characteristics that need to be fulfilled. That tells me what a character could do or the purpose the character serves. But a character is a person. What they do does not directly involve who they are.

The shape of the character tells me what sort of person might gravitate towards that role.

For example, let’s say there’s a SETI scientist in the story. To be a scientist implies a thoroughness of approach, some significant cognitive horsepower, a fair amount of schooling of some sort. To work for SETI implies someone that can handle long efforts with little payoff. Those are the character requirements. Within the story, it might be someone who isn’t intimidated by new ideas or encountering extraterrestrial aliens. (I am an SF writer after all. Aliens come in at some point.) The person has to be somebody either that is approachable by the reader or interesting enough to hold the reader’s interest even though he’s repellent. (Think pretty much any character in Game of Thrones.)

The character might have to be articulate to explain the plot, athletic to run around while chased by evil, able to hack a computer with dark net technology, woo the romantic interest and be rooted for during necessary sunset sailing at the end of the story.

Okay. That might define a role. It does not define a character. But it does suggest the shape of a character.

Back to SETI: this is an organization that has never had any success. It continues to search for clues out there for any sign of intelligent life without any assurance of success. Think about it. The aliens might have sent out whole volumes of material just before their sun went nova and it passed through our solar system in 1890. Or it might have just been sent from Kepler-1659c last week to show up sometime in the spring of 2322. SETI pretty much defines a thankless scientific task. Sure, it might turn something up. More than likely it won’t and it hasn’t.

What sort of scientist would dedicate some or all of their time to this effort? Say, we’re talking an astrophysicist. Surely there are better paying jobs than SETI. More rewarding jobs, even. So, maybe our scientist likes lost causes. Or passionately believes in SETI. Or is dabbling in it because a little craziness on the resume suggests creative thinking. These are character shapes.

Back in 2007, before he descended into schtick, Jeff Goldblum starred in a short-lived police drama called Raines. I have nothing against schtick, but Goldblum has serious chops and we don’t get to see them much anymore. In Raines, they were on full display. The main character, Michael Raines, was a detective who hallucinated the victims in the homicide cases he worked. What was interesting about that, and why it’s relevant here, was that the character of the hallucinations changed as Raines found out more about them. He might start with a teenage girl as virginal cheerleader, who then transforms into harlot, then into studious bookworm.

This is how characters transform from shape to person. Personhood accretes from knowledge.

We start with a character shape and role. Well, that requires information and data to understand. If we’re talking about an articulate SETI astrophysicist with a fetish for lost causes, we need to do a little research. What does SETI do? How does it do it? What does an astrophysicist do? How is it done? What is our scientist’s specialty?

Then, we start to drill down: what did he do his thesis on? Where did he go to graduate school? Undergrad? Did he have loans to work off or did he have scholarships? You have to want to be an astrophysicist. No one is born Brian Greene. It takes work and those same skills can be used to game Wall Street. What drew our scientist to astrophysics and then to SETI? More interestingly, what choices were made to scale down the character’s ambition?—looking for aliens is a big, impossible ambition. What did our scientist decide to do that was possible and in the direction of that big, impossible goal? Oxygen detection on exoplanets? Radio analysis of signals?

What does our scientist do when he isn’t sciencing? We like to pretend that people are their jobs but it isn’t so. I worked for a medical researcher at one point that was also a professional cellist. One coworker I knew played trombone in a swing band. Is our scientist happily married? Divorced? Widowed? With kids? Had a child, lost it, the grief destroyed the marriage?

A lot of writers I know build characters like machines. Plug the marriage in there. Adjust the flow of sex and add in some dissatisfaction.

I can’t do that. It’s like outlining—I know writers that do that, too. Every scene blocked out. I can’t do that, either. If I do that, if I know everything, the well dries up and the work is never completed.

So, I just keep thinking about them. Try this on them. Add kids—a possible complication because that means the kids are characters in the story, too. Same for dogs. Add a spouse—same problem. But a misfit loner has problems, too. What fits? What doesn’t?

And the fit can’t be too exact. A character that is molded to fit the role is unpleasant and not terribly human—unless that’s the point of the story. One of the interesting scenes in Patton at the end of the war as an image of someone who’s lost their purpose.

Often, I’ll get to a point where the shape of the character is sufficiently detailed that I can start working. Then, I learn about them as I go. Heinlein said he wrote until the characters started talking to him and then he knew it was time to stop. From my point of view, that’s about when things are getting interesting. That’s when the characters start doing things on their own. Countless times they have derailed a perfectly nice plot with their own little needs and wants.

This is the alchemical point where dross turns to gold. A lot of what I’ve described is mechanical. But eventually, I learn about them and when I do, they start talking. They have fights. Soliloquies. Moments of tearful joy. Frightful anger. Deep regrets. I don’t know how they come to life but they do.

There’s a scene in the Disney film, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, where Wilhelm gets sick and is visited by all of the characters of the stories he’s collected.

That is what I meant by multiple-personality-disorder in harness.





Oh, yeah. Characters. — 6 Comments

  1. Yes. There could be many blog entries on individual writer processes on characters. I suspect it is the most variable process between writers.

    • I’ve discovered that every aspect is an astonishingly wide variety of variables: planning and plotting vs pantsing, self-editing, research, everything varies. Whenever I give my talk on the strengths and weaknesses of being a visual writer, it’s interesting to look out at the attendees and see how many stare off wearily, waiting for me to stop blabbering incomprehensibly, and how many sit up, eyes wide with sudden recognition.

  2. I think I tend to come up with a situation and think “how would a person respond to that situation?” and go from there. In the process I discover their blind spots, their competences, their loves and hates, but it all grows out of that response. And I want to make sure they’re not just me in a jumpsuit or something. The other thing that comes into play is wondering why someone would do something, and finding a path to the action… which tells me about the character.

    I’m not entirely certain how I create characters, come to think of it. But once I have them, I know them pretty well.

  3. Thanks, Steven. I love that moment when my characters insist on talking to me and making their own decisions. That demands flexibility, but is so much more interesting than following a strict outline. Heinlein (I’m not a fan) maybe lost opportunities by cutting them off at that point.