Why Character-Building Is Like Baking Chocolate Chip Cookies
So, I’m already hating myself a little for presenting the topic this way because I know I’m going to want cookies immediately afterward. But when I sat down to write about how I create my characters, it was the most apt comparison that came to mind. Plus, I just really like cookies.
Phase One: Prepare
So, you want a cookie really badly, and just going to buy one won’t cut it. You need to mix and bake it and keep all that glorious cookie goodness for yourself. This is much like the flash of inspiration for a new story. It pops into your head and suddenly that’s all you crave. You must have it, and since it’s your idea, you have to bake it yourself. Er, I mean write it yourself.
Personally, I almost always get plot and world ideas first. That’s kind of like wanting a cookie and, in general, knowing what kind of cookie I’m craving. This is the world, this is the story I want to happen inside that world, and these are the feelings I want to evoke in my readers. So at this point, I know I the basic flavor I want my cookie to have. The more I think about it, the more I consider – and either accept or reject – ideas for additional ingredients to complement the core flavor.
Now it’s time for chocolate chips – the characters. My process for character creation starts out a bit mechanically, then grows more organic and intuitive as I write. At this point, I start exploring what kind of main character would make sense in this world. Who would live in this place I’ve begun building in my mind? What would they be like? How would their experiences in this particular world have affected them? Are they the kind of person who would even get involved in the story I want to tell? How would they react if I described my plot idea to THEM? And so I do my best to choose a chocolate chip that best melds with the cookie I’m baking. Some cookies call for milk chocolate, others bittersweet, and others might even call for caramel chips and toffee instead. There’s no wrong answer if they taste great together.
(As a side note, this isnt’ to say that every character has to slot perfectly into the world and make total sense. In fact, some great character drama and plot points can result from the contrast of a character to an environment they don’t necessarily belong in. There are limits, though. Parmesan cheese may be delicious, but if it you mix it into your cookie batter, you’re going to have a bad time.)
Phase Two: Mix
So, you’ve chosen the cookie’s core flavors, selected a fitting chocolate chip to add, and they’re both delicious. Now it’s time to put them together. At this point I’m working on the world, the plot, and the characters at the same time. The basic cookie ingredients are already spinning away in the mixer, slowly melding into one coherent vision. Now I pour in the characters, giving them a real place in the world, watching carefully as the mixer folds them into the batter of my world and my story. They’re all together now, pushing and pulling against each other, becoming one yet still with a bit of separation. I write the scenes that are coming to me, piecing together the outline of every major character and plot point. If everything’s working well together, I keep going with it, letting the ingredients mix and the flavors combine and grow together. If everything has gone well to this point, the batter and the chips will taste like they’ve always belonged with each other.
Now I know a large portion of the plot, and I’ve reached a level of comfort with my characters. But it’s not until the next phase that I really see what they’re made of.
Phase 3: Bring on the Heat
Now the cookies are in the oven. I’ve started writing for real, applying the heat – the major and personal conflicts and obstacles of the story – and that’s when the good stuff really happens. The batter starts to melt, and so do the chocolate chips, running together just enough to create a magical blend of flavors. The plot affects the characters, and now the characters have achieved a life of their own and they can affect the plot. I learn about them by putting them in the fire and seeing what they’ll say, what they’ll do. Now they breathe, now they’re real, and in my mind I see them TAKE action rather than assigning action to them. Now I can’t wait to write. I’m invested in them, and I can’t wait to sit down and see them again, to cheer at their victories and hang my head at their failures. And, because it’s my job, I throw more plot at them to see how they’ll overcome it. Hopefully, once they’re out of the oven and cooling, they’ll smell good enough that others will want to try them, too.
Now suit up and get writing!