Creating characters is a little like making friends

The PLC hit a bit of a rough patch there, with all of us encountering various hazards on our little writing roadways, which sent us swerving about into ditches and oncoming traffic. But we had a really fun meeting this past weekend and got caught up with each other’s lives and PLC matters. Expect new podcast episodes in the coming week in addition to new blog posts.

Our topic this week: character creation.

DSC_3072_MorgueFileI’ve just been through line edits with my second novel, While You Were Gone (Knopf, August 2015), and feel like I’m finally understanding who my characters are in this book. Getting to know them has been a little like trying to talk to quiet people at a party with really loud music and obnoxious people yelling in a house that’s under construction. Finally in this round of revisions, I feel like I’ve been able to decipher their voices through the noise, or maybe read their lips. Something. Anyway, it got me thinking that creating characters is a little like making friends.

The strange thing about friends, for me at least, is I often forget how I met them, and how we became friends. Many of my friends and I go waaaaaay back, so there are vague ideas about when the friendships started. “We were in the same kindergarten class,” or “we lived on the same street”. That kind of thing. Friends who came along later in life get other vague references, such as “we worked together” or “we were both at that one writing conference”. But to remember a specific event is often very difficult for me. The process of becoming a friend, though, is typically the same.

You become friends with someone by spending time together.

This is true for creating characters, too. When you meet someone new, they don’t usually splat their life story on you and tell you everything about them the first time you talk. (Or maybe they do and you get overwhelmed and have second thoughts about being friends at all.) No, typically you get to know people over time. Kind of like dating, it starts of simple–a conversation in the school drop off-line, or at the soccer game–and then becomes more involved–chatting over coffee, meeting up for dinner, etc. Same with your characters, too. They might show up in a scene, and you think, “Well, who are you?” So you give them a little space to see what they do, and when they show you they’ve got enough substance for a larger role in the story, you give them a bigger scene, and so on.

You become friends by asking questions.

The best way to get to know someone is to ask questions. Did you grow up here? Which high school did you attend? Did you like that latest Spiderman movie? Who is your favorite Avenger? Same goes for your characters. Some authors have character questionnaires or interviews they conduct, which can be very useful. For me, however, I’ve found that when I used them, I forced the answers on the character, rather than discovering who he or she is based on what they’re doing in the story. It sounds a little namblypambly, but for me, that led to inauthenticity and characters moving the story in a forced way. It didn’t work. I don’t typically interview my friends, and I don’t typically interview my characters. But during our conversations over coffee or in the drop off-line, I’ll ask things that start a conversation. Same with my characters, except with my characters, I’m always listening to my intuition to see if the responses I’m getting feel true or not. Hopefully with friends, the answers they give are always true. (Right?)

You become friends by sharing stories.

One of the best things, I think, about having friends is sharing stories. Other than shared experience, the best bonding between friends is sharing stories. Our stories are who we are. You want to know who I am, what I’m like? Here are stories from my history that show you my character, my values, my heart, my mind. With writing, there’s nothing more exciting (I think) than when a story from a character’s past comes to light. Suddenly it bubbles up and completely informs where the character is at now and why they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s always a lightbulb moment for me. When I’m working on getting to know my characters, I always try to be tuned in for what has happened in the past that makes the character who they are in the now of my story.

You become friends by listening.

The only way you get to know someone is if you stop talking long enough to listen. I think that’s true in both friendships and with creating characters. If I get too busy typing away on the plot and the action and moving my characters from one place to the next and getting the information down so I can move onto the next thing-UGH. Suddenly my characters start sounding like Brain (from Pinky and the Brain) explaining how he’s going to try to take over the world. Dialogue becomes expository. Characters become game pieces or cardboard cutouts. That was totally happening in my second book, especially as I tried to hammer out the plot. I wasn’t comfortable with the story construction and my characters melted away into the scenery. It was only when I started listening to them and their reactions to the story that the started regaining dimension and began to feel real.

Now, I’m sure there are hundreds of ways to get to the heart of characters, and there doubtless are many books and essays and websites from authors who have been at this much longer than I have and who are far better writers than I am. This is what works for me, for right now. It might work for you. If it doesn’t, but something else does, maybe you’d be so kind as to add your advice to the comments. I’m listening. 🙂