Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Character traits

Tate, fascinating question and interesting answer. Normally you and I are so far apart on the way we approach character that we could be living on different planets. In this case, how we get there is just as far apart, but the end results are very similar.

Short answer, I don't keep track of any of those things unless they're directly germane to the plot.

Longer answer, I deal with characters in much the way a director deals with actors. There's a script. They follow along. If someone wants to know what their motivation is, I make something up and then go back and layer it into the early parts of the story. Say that on page 138 it becomes important that Johnny is fanatically attached to the color blue and that impacts the plot in a way I hadn't thought about in the original outline. I write the scene on 138, note the new twist down in my constantly updated plot outline, then go back and look for places earlier in the story that I can introduce the idea of color attachment, both personally for Johnny and thematically for the story.

Now, say that the character of Johnny wasn't actually fond of the color blue. I've rewritten his history at this point, so now he is. Simple as that. I hired these people to play certain parts. If that doesn't happen, they're out looking for a new job while a new actor comes in, identical in every respect but the fact that this one will do the job.

Does that mean that nothing off script happens? Of course not. If an actor improvises something that's cool and that moves the main story forward (the story I wanted to tell from that get-go, since that's how I write) I use it. Whole chapters have been born this way, and huge important new sections.

Of course, all my characters are really sort of like little split-off bits of myself since I don't actually believe in their independent realities. It's all a matter of "if I were this person in this situation..."

So, if it's critical to the story it goes in the plot outline. If it's merely a telling detail, I just store it in memory as it comes up, I can always do a word search if I lose it. If it's not that important, I don't generally know or care. It's all about what move the story forward.

I'd love to hear what other writers have to say on the subject since Tate and I, so far apart in conception, are so close in practical execution.

Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?


Erik Buchanan said...

I don't keep track of character traits at all in the first draft, unless they are something that may help the plot along.

In the second (and subsequest) draft(s), if I discover the character is doing something or has a personality trait that is interesting and adds depth to him or her, or that may help drive the plot along, then I will work on adding it in and making it consistent throughout the book.

Other than that, though I don't think about it.

(Wow, way to many subordinate clauses in that sentence)

In terms of character development, my approach is the same. First draft, I just tell the story and let the character's show as little or as much of themselves as they like.

Second draft is the time to get into who they are and discover if they are consistent in their actions and behaviours, or if they are actions and behaviours are changing as a result of the character's development (instead of the writer's whim). It's also the time to make sure everyone is their own person, instead of just a type.

Kelly McCullough said...

Interesting take, Erik. Sounds like a good method.

The line between drafts is much less clear for me since I'm contantly making changes that then ripple back and forth through everything written so far and I do it at the time they occur to me.

I tend to go through:

1. Drafting stage, in which nothing is terribly fixed, though I do outline and follow my outline fairly closely. This is a very mutable draft and informed by critique from my writers group(s).

2. Clean up and beta draft. The end result of this is supposed to be a pretty clear and polished version for first readers.

3. Submission draft, i.e. going out to my agent and editor after I've made the changes I find useful from first readers.

4. Final draft, the submission draft with whatever changes my agent, editor and I agree on.

Erik Buchanan said...

Interesting. For me, I find that if I start making edits in the first draft, I don't stop and the story never gets told. So unless I make a major discovery along the way or I screw something up massively I try to leave my work alone as much as possible.

(In writing Small Magics I dicsovered I'd completely pooched the story and that a major fix was needed. I had to rewite 100 pages).

I think it's because my stream of consciousness is fairly linear. It leads, I follow. Once I've hit the end of the journey, I retrace my steps and clean up the path for whoever comes next.

Like you, I also do first draft, first reader draft, and submission draft.