On Characters

Okay. Everyone else I see doing these blog thingers writes a post about characters. I figure, since I write so much fiction and am currently trying to speed-write an entire novel for NaNoWriMo, I should say my piece about that. Because I honestly think that if a novel doesn’t have good, believable characters, it doesn’t stand a chance no matter how good the plot may be.

I won’t try to pretend I know how to build good characters. I don’t know if my characters are decent or not. I THINK they are, but I don’t really know. Maybe they’re terrible. Ask Raine. She’d know better than I would. Because it’s really hard to judge your own work. You know if sentences and ideas suck or not, but the subtleties that come along with building a good character are harder to identify. Especially if you don’t know your character.

This is going to be my main point. Knowing your character. Understanding her. In my mind, it isn’t enough to create a character, figure out her characteristics, quirks, personality malfunctions, level of morality, values, etc. Not nearly enough. Figuring out those things are a start. The basics. Like learning notes and rhythms in a new song. You learn the notes and rhythms and then you’re done, right? NO.

It’s the same with characters. When I write, I think of a character in my head, and let the personality develop as I write. I go along, writing about this person, for who knows how long. And I think everything is fine. And then one of two things will happen.

1) I will write my character doing something, then stop and say… “Hey, she wouldn’t actually do that. That’s out of character.” And I have to change it. OR, as happens more often,

2) I will go back to reread everything I’ve written, and realize that the character I started out with at the beginning is NOT the character that is on my most recent page. Not like she had an amazing amount of personal growth throughout the novel. She just changed in my mind as I wrote her.

When either of those two things happen, I realize that I’m beginning to know my character. To understand her, as a person, not as an invention from my own head. And that, I think, is the most important thing about writing a character. It’s so important that I’m going to bold it so you can’t miss it.

A character is NOT just an invention in your head. As you write this person, she begins to take on a life of her own. She becomes a real person, no longer something you created. You can’t control everything she does. You can’t make her do things she doesn’t want to do. And you can’t change her personality any more than you could change your own. Write her the way she wants to be, and don’t try to change her, because you can’t, and you shouldn’t. Once you’ve discovered how she is, she just is. Leave her alone.

I don’t have children, so please don’t get mad at me if this is crap, but it seems like it would be the same thing (although a child is, admittedly, much more real than a character). You create life, and you raise the child in a certain way, trying to shape her into something good. But at a certain point, you realize that kid has a personality of her own and it’s not all up to you. A good character has to be the same way. You create her, but then she grows and becomes something outside of yourself.

A good character has to be as real to you as the real people in your life. Not in a nutty, oh my lord, that person thinks her characters are real kind of way. Nothing crazy. But the things they do, think, believe, and want have to be as real to you as the things your friends and family do, think, believe, and want. You have to know them just as well as you know anyone. Otherwise, you just increase the risk that you’ll write your characters doing something grossly out of character and not even realize it.

You are one person. One person trying to create countless other people. Anyone you create will probably have a tiny piece of you in there. It’s hard to be one person trying to create a character who may be your polar opposite. I guess that’s where research comes in. You can watch a lot of TV, movies, read a lot of other books, observe people while you’re out and about, and start to try to understand people who are nothing like you. At least, understand them well enough to turn them into a character, or part of a character.

Again, not claiming I’m great at making characters. But in my mind, they are solid. I know them. Sometimes my characters seem so real to me that I wish I could meet them in person. Like I think they could actually exist as real people. Like they’re real enough for that. Like I said, that could all be in my head, and my characters could be one-dimensional cartoon figures that a four-year-old wouldn’t understand, but…. that’s why I let people read my writing. To make sure that isn’t the case.

So anyway, I sometimes get to that point, where I realize my characters are different and it’s not because of personal growth. I go back through, edit them until they are the way that I know them now, and continue on, hoping that as the story progresses, I can aim for some real, natural, believable growth. Because that’s something that happens to real people, too. Development. At least, we can hope so.

And finally, so I’m not publishing two posts in one day, I want to throw in a quick update on my NaNoWriMo progress. For there is progress. As of today, I’m still 7,000 words behind where I should be, but I finished part 2 of the book yesterday, and I feel sure that I can catch up. The most important thing is, I’m no longer unmotivated. I’m reinvigorated, on the warpath, determined to finish. I’ve dumped that awful, arbitrary goal of mine to finish my behemoth in a year, and it took off a lot of pressure. Now I can focus on one story, instead of scrambling to write as much as possible on both. What a disservice that would have been to my behemoth, anyway. It deserves better.

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4 responses to “On Characters

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