Every so often, when I venture over to The Coffee-Stained Writer for a cuppa, I end up walking away with my mind reeling. Well, that’s actually a common occurrence, but there are times when I’m merely vibrating a bit from the extra infusion of caffeinated fiction and times when I’m bouncing off the walls and ceiling. This is one of the latter times.
Nicole has been brewing up character biographies, y’see. But she’s not content to merely tell us how writing up bios has forged connections between disparate folks and shown her how to weave an entire series of stand-alone books together. No, she had to go and ask a question:
How do you create well-rounded characters for your stories?
That’s not actually the simple question it appears to be.
Every writer has their own way of going about things. If you’ve ever read books or articles about character creation, you’ll come across about 10,000 different lists of questions you should answer for a character bio. Then you’ll have celebrity death matches between writers who think you should do detailed bios, those who think you shouldn’t, those who care about physical details, those who don’t, and some who scoff at the very notion of character bios. There would not seem to be any one formula for creating perfect, well-rounded characters, and so I won’t offer one. Instead, I’m just going to babble about how I do it.
Hell, you might even find it interesting.
It all starts with….
You know, before we go there, I should advise you that even though I’m numbering these, there’s no order to it. Best to think of it as a kind of web, with the points all ranged round each other, and things can connect any-old-how. There’s more than one connection between every point, more than one thread to travel down to get here or there. And at the center of the web is, hopefully, a well-rounded character.
Right. So it can start with anything, but it usually starts when I
1. Meet Someone
The first step in building a better character is knowing they exist, really. Sometimes, all I’ve got is a face. Sometimes, it’s just a name, or a job description, or a character-shaped hole in my universe. Sometimes, all I hear is a voice. Sometimes, the person in question just leaps nearly fully-formed into my mind, as if they’ve always been there.
How do I meet characters? A variety of ways. Sometimes, I’m introduced by the characters I’ve already got. Or they might come to me when I’m watching or reading something. Adrian Sykes, my anti-hero, arrived via the Best of Highlander, which my best friend had hauled out from North Carolina. Methos made my mind itch. It was like I recognized him.
That actually happens quite a lot. And so I figure out who’s there. I’ve met someone. Now what? We
Let’s continue on with Adrian. After a Highlander marathon, I went for a walk, and Adrian’s voice just started flowing through my mind, telling me the story of his life. He’s got Peter Wingfield’s accent, a little of Methos’s survival mentality, the Shadow’s unforgivable things in his past (“Do you know what it’s like to have done things that you can never forgive yourself for?”), and there’s a little bit of Ethan Hunt from the Mission: Impossible movies, there, too, in the snazzy-dresser smooth-as-silk aspect. But a conscience? Not so much. His answer to the unforgivable past is to decide there’s nothing there to forgive. Different characters answer different questions in their own way.
We babble. I ask them questions, sometimes, but sometimes, I don’t even have to do that. Some of my characters are so talkative all I have to do is sit there with paper and pen and scribble down what they say. We talk about their life, the Universe and Everything. We talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, until I’ve got a good idea of who they are and how they got there and how they fit in to the world. We don’t worry about making a story of it. We just jabber. Anything. Everything.
But sometimes, I run into very taciturn folks. There are characters who come over all shy or reticent or just plain hate to talk about themselves, for a variety of reasons. So what then? Why, I do what I always do. I
3. Consult Dusty
This may be where I depart from most writers. I dunno. But she’s the one I go to: my main character, who’s been with me since I was a wee little kid. She’s a profiler, which means she knows minds, and she’s at the center of it all, which means she either knows or knows of absolutely everybody. If I can’t get to know someone, I turn to her. Sometimes, she’s the one who gets the conversation started. Sometimes, she introduces me to the people who know people. Sometimes, she just gives me advice on how to get through to someone.
Sounds absolutely mad, doesn’t it? But that’s how creativity is. It’s useful madness. And sometimes, that means I have to talk to one character before I can get to know another. I’m just lucky to have someone like her.
But there are times when even her considerable knowledge and talents aren’t enough. There are things she doesn’t know, and the character I’m trying to get to know is either being silent or evasive or presenting a bland face. Sometimes, the things they’re telling me don’t mesh, or ring true, or make sense. But, all is not lost! You see, Dusty is an FBI agent, and she has taught me how to
This is when I’ll go back over absolutely everything I’ve ever written about that character. I excavate every possible detail and examine it. I question motives. I look for clues. And I’ll always find something. Maybe it’s something they said, or something they did, that I can then use as the key to unlock them. I ask questions: why did they do that, or say that, or react in that way? What were they doing in that situation to begin with? Why do they have these weird personality quirks? Or conversely, why haven’t they got weird personality quirks?
It’s how I found out Nikki’s autistic – I realized at some point that he wouldn’t look people in the eye, and when I combined that with his other weird personality traits, the obvious hit me like a ten-ton heavy thing. It’s how I realized Dusty wouldn’t end up dating Ray – she was paying far too much attention to Jusadan’s eyebrows the first time she met him. Oh, she told me nothing was going on there, but damn it, you don’t notice every last damned detail about perfectly ordinary eyebrows if there isn’t some sexual spark there. I’ve learned a lot about my characters merely by prying into their childhoods, investigating their family and friends, noting every little out of place thing about them, listening to speech patterns, noting what they dwell on and what they avoid.
And how, you may ask, do I know these things if they’re not telling me? Simple. I
5. Stick ’em In a Story
Doesn’t matter if it’s never going to go anywhere, or if it’s out of the main line of the book I’m supposed to be writing, or if it’s got enough native tension to actually be a readable story. I just set some scenes and let them walk through. I may write a whole story with a beginning, middle and end, or I may just write a few desultory scenes. But I write up some fiction rather than background stuff, and watch them reveal themselves in spite of themselves. Sometimes, we’ve learned together things they didn’t tell me because they didn’t know something about themselves until we wrote about it. It’s kind of like finding out you hate yellow because you’ve always subconsciously associated it with your annoying cousin, who used to hit you over the head with a yellow bat when you were four years old.
Sometimes, it’s more comfortable for a character to show me what they’ve been through than talk about it directly. Kind of like shoving a home movie in someone’s hand and saying, “There, this is what happened, watch it for yourself, I’m outta here.” Sometimes, writing a few scenes together builds trust and rapport. I think sometimes they start to understand what I’m doing and why I’m asking these crazy questions. And I start to understand why they couldn’t relay information the way some of my other story people do.
Story people are just like real people: they’re all different, and respond differently to different things. Maybe it’s not like that for every writer, but it’s like that for me. Each one of my characters is a unique individual, and just because I created them doesn’t mean I get to have my way with them. There’s a respect thing, there. It’s one way to make sure I don’t start treating them like tools and manipulating them to my satisfaction. Allowing them autonomy means they’re their own people, not mine, and I believe that leads to better stories in the long run.
But even if all of the prior stuff has worked out great and we have this fantastic rapport and they’re spilling their complete
selves out to me, there’s still more work to be done. You see, a lot of them live lives very different from anything I’ve ever encountered. They’ve been through things I’ve never experienced, they have jobs I’d never dreamed of and know nothing about, they grew up in a completely different world (literal or figurative) from mine. So I has gots to do my
Now that I know enough about them to know what I have to learn about in order to fully understand them, I can hit the books and the intertoobz and find out what gaps in my knowledge are leading to gaps in my understanding of them. For Ishaarda, for instance, I researched Nebraska, because she grew up in a place rather like that. I found out a lot of things about her experiences as a youngster that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t know about the kind of place she grew up in. I’ve researched sericulture for Ticaal’s family, and winemaking for Jorvaa’s, and of course I researched the hell out of the FBI for Dusty. I walked around the house blindfolded for a blind character, even. All of those bits of research have fed back into the characters, told me why they are the way they are and why and how they see the world the way they do. It’s helped me understand what they’re trying to tell me.
So, that’s how I create well-rounded characters. Part of it, anyway. It’s how I start plumping them out. If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But I love doing it. I love getting to know my story people, learning the most minute details of their lives, love seeing the world through their eyes. All that hard work is more than worth doing.
So I’m going to pass it on now, for those writers in the crowd:
How do you create well-rounded characters for your stories?