Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Springing Fully-Formed or Where Characters Come From

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.


~ Mari said...

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

Pretty much the same here. Although, I do keep a "cheat sheet" with my writing binder with stuff scribbled on it like

- Laurel fiddles with her rings
- don't forget Sami's broken fingers
- how Devon stands when he's upset

stuff like that - just to help jog my memory.

tate hallaway said...

I do that too, actually. I also sometimes doodle pictures of the character... so you see, I'm still discovering the answer to Pat's question!

Douglas Hulick said...

What strikes me most about your student's question is that it is about "personality tics and traits." This implies he is looking at a character, at least to some degree, as a grab-bag of tags and idiosyncrasies. I don't go for that.

For me, it is more about who the character is, what they want, what they respect and desire and fear (and on and on), than whether they always butter their toast with the blunt side of the knife, or whatever. As the character develops for me, the so-called tics just happen and become a part of him or her. Now, that's not to say that I don't tweak them here or there, or forget them, or have to go back now and then to check something; but for the most part, they are part of the person I am writing.

Plus, I tend not to do a lot of quirks and the like. *shrug*

The one exception is when I am doing a walk-on character. Spear carriers can be great hooks to hang various quirks and mannerisms on, especially if they help provide a short-hand description for the reader. In these cases, the trick is to make sure I don't have two people doing the same thing in different parts of the story. :)

shawn e. said...

ok, so this really got me thinking and in the process i've totally gone off on my own tangent. i guess the question i had to answer first was where my characters come from, which isn't really something i've asked myself before. but i think the two go hand in hand. i mean, you have to know your character in order to develop all those tics and traits in the first place, right?

anyway, here goes...

the best i can do to describe is that my characters will just appear. i'll see them in this one perfect moment where i know who they are and what they are all about. i won't know their favorite color or if they are lefties or righties. i won't even necessairly know the circumstances that made them who they are but i will know THEM.

i guess the question from here is how do i discover all those things that i DON'T know? sometimes i make them up. sometimes that works and sometimes i discover i've forced them to do or say something they didn't really want to. i think the trick is to find that place where you listen to your characters and the process of writing becomes an extension of their desires, will, whatever you want to call it. when you find that place you don't even think about it, it just IS.

wow - that was really quite illuminating for me! lol! thanks for bearing with me! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I too was a great pretender growing up, Tate. I was the writer/director of stories my friends and I acted out until they grew out of it. Then I continued to tell myself stories. I never stopped.

And like Tate I don't build characters. They just show up, they seem very real and complete, and I know a lot about them when they appear. What I don't know, they show me as I write.

The novel I am editing now is a great example of how this works for me. I was all set to write a book, had a basic plot outline, I was good to go. And one of the two main characters TOLD me that I had to write HER story first. (No it wasn't an audible voice, and I don't wear aluminum foil under my baseball cap to keep the aliens from controlling my brain.) It was very clear, though, that my writery mind, speaking through this character, was adamant that the real story started with the childhood of Alykon, not with the meeting of the two characters I had planned to write about. So I trusted the writerly part of my brain, and this stubborn character, and I wrote her story, first-person POV, because I figured if she was strong enough to boss the writer around she ought to be able to carry a novel. And it worked. I don't know if other people will think so, lol, but I was really pleased with the story. It was indeed where the whole saga begins, and it was far too interesting to skip over.

The book I'm working on now is a good example of how this sort of subconscious character creation can make for problems, though! When the characters seem real, you get attached. In this case I am very attached to a character who was never meant to be the main character. It isn't his story, he wasn't the love interest, he was supposed to be support staff. But there's no way. He is the funniest character in a funny book, he's charming, and my main character, who was SUPPOSED to be a lesbian, is clearly going to fall for this GUY. It feels inevitable. So my plot outline is warping. I had to set the project aside and stew on this development. I think this is the difficulty of having character development happen off the page as a sort of intuitive birth.

It may be that writers who manually develop characters should hope to develop more intuitive character generation and those of us who see the character as fully formed should hope to learn to balance that out with more orderly planning, lol. I suppose it isn't much different than a basketball player who is a great rebounder having to work on his shot and a great B-ball shooter having to practice rebounding: If you want to be great you try to become well-rounded. :-)