I’m leading a novel writing workshop at the Writer’s Center, and recently we were talking about characters. The best characters are complicated and complex, I said, they are neither all good nor all bad. I like the succinct sound of this saying: Fiction is about good people doing bad things or bad people doing good things. And my friend Ginny sent me a great quote that I immediately stole: author Colin Channer said, “For me [the story idea] comes down to this, an interesting person who wants an interesting thing for an interesting reason.”
People in the class are at varying points in their novels-in-progress, so we talked about how writing the first draft of a novel is often the way the writer discovers the story and the characters, and one woman wanted to know more about what it means to discover your characters.
Plenty of teachers and writing books advocate character sketches and other sorts of creative tricks: scrapbooks for the character, photos from magazines, lists of important dates, a questionnaire of events in the character’s life, a checklist of thought-provoking questions (i.e. what is this character’s recurring nightmare?). I’ve used some of these tricks to good effect—for my current project, one character has a knack for wearing vintage clothing (I don’t) and is a big clothes person (I’m not), so early in the process I ripped out pictures from several Vogue magazines of outfits she might wear, thinking I would leaf through the file when I needed to describe her attire. I felt vindicated recently when I looked through the folder and discovered that inadvertently I had ripped out the same outfit twice, once in a Vogue feature, once in an ad, which I took to mean that I “knew” my character well enough to know (twice!) that this outfit was something she would like. (She wears it to the big Thanksgiving dinner at dad’s house.)
Someone in the class offered a great idea that was a new twist for me: put your characters in situations you were recently in, even (especially?) the mundane ones: if you were at the dentist, send your characters to the dentist, he suggested, what kind of gums do they have? Do they get chastised for not flossing (as I do)?
I often write a short story or two with novel characters I’m interested in before I commit to them. ("Men Who Have Seen the Ocean" is a study for A Year and a Day.)
So I like those tricks. And they can help.
But they also distract.
I believe the best way to discover your characters is to throw them into action. Get them moving. All the lists and ripped-out magazine pages in the world won’t tell you as much as a single scene that you write out, not knowing for sure how your character will react. You can imagine that your pregnant, 13-year-old daughter character will be keeping her baby…until you get her arguing with her mother and suddenly she’s shouting that she’s going to give that baby up for adoption to a “real family.” In creative writing, you just can’t plan out everything.
I re-taught myself this lesson in the last month. There is one fairly major thing I have not worked out with the plotting of Prodigal Daughters, and I’m fast approaching that chapter. While I was traveling and away from my writing, I had the opportunity to spend time thinking about how to resolve this plotting issue. I sat and thought and thought and sat. I brainstormed. I wrote pages of notes. I doodled. I sat and thought some more. (Long airplane ride, lots of sitting in a car.) Finally, I worked out what I thought was a very good solution. I carefully guarded my little notebook with all my ideas (carry-on luggage, thank you very much!).
Two weeks later, I finally had the opportunity to get back to actual writing, and I re-immersed myself with my characters. Three days after that, I woke up one morning and saw the real way to resolve that plotting issue, and it had little to do with all the notes I’d carefully written and everything to do with the fact that I was actually writing, actually back in the book, actually with my characters, actually seeing them in action.
Thinking and planning are worthy activities.
But in my experience, the way to discover your characters and your story is to sit down and write, trusting that something will come. It always does…eventually.