I’m teaching at the Loft this quarter, and tonight we talked about character. One of my students, Pat, asked a very astute question that actually stumped me. He asked, “How do you keep track of your character’s various personality tics and traits?”
The thing is I don’t.
I don’t have a list of hobbies, hair color, favorite foods on a post-it note next to my computer, because my characters are real to me. I have never had much luck doing those writing exercises where you fill in what is basically a RPG character sheet with additional questions like: “What’s your character’s favorite time of year?” Thing is, I don’t really know the answer to those questions until I ask it “for real” in the story. And, if I wrote down “fall” outside of the context of story, the answer would be a lie (in fact, it would most likely be MY answer to the question, not the character’s.)
My characters tend come alive as they interact with the story.
I know their answer to those kinds of cocktail party questions only when they come up in the course of storytelling. If it’s germane to the plot that my character has a favorite alcoholic drink, I know the answer when I need it and not a second before, you know?
The only character developing exercise I ever had any success with was the whole “sit down and interview your character” one. I couldn’t do it as me, however. I had to set the scene, create the character of the interviewer, and, in essence, have the frame of a plot in order to trick myself into believing that this wasn’t an exercise at all, but something that could really have happened in the history of my character. (If you want to read the result, I have it online as part of my Mouse’s house extras.)
I told Pat that why characters come to me like this is a mystery to me, and that it may be one of those moments when writing and magic are the same thing. So, in effect, I waved my hands around a lot and in the end admitted that I don’t have a freaking clue.
I came home tonight still puzzling.
While I often say that some characters spring out of my head, full-formed, like Athena, I think I’m discounting both conscious and subconscious play. I spend a lot of time playing make-believe. I’m not talking about the play that goes into writing, I mean, extra-curricular play. Pretty much any time I’m not required to actively participate in my own life, I’m somewhere else being someone else -- not unlike the infamous Walter Mitty. There are people that I like to be, who I have been for decades. Some of whom, correspondingly, have decades worth of back story. When I think about “starting” a character, a lot of times I draw on those people whom I’ve had living in my head all these years.
I don’t have to keep track of the personality quirks of my characters because I know them intimately. They’ve been my companions while I wait in line at the grocery store, they ride home with me on the bus, and their stories have entertained me as I’m falling asleep at night, every night, since I was old enough to tell myself stories (but particularly once playing pretend with other people became verboten for someone MY AGE.)
But this is not good advice to give a student. “Listen Pat, what you need to do is go home and start playing pretend. Once you’ve done that for nearly forty years, you should be able to remember everything about all your characters without having to resort to quirks and tics.” And, anyway, once again it’s not the whole truth, because there are times when the story demands characters I’ve never thought of before and I do make them up on the spot, rather than culling from a life-time of pretend.
More hand waving.
I guess I still I don’t really know.