Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Character's the Thing

They say that once you begin a book, the characters write themselves. Authors have talked about having characters just walk into their head, and start telling them what to say.
"No no, you need to have me go through that tunnel, and then I'd say something snappy, like 'Guess the only way out is through.' There you go, yeah."

As an aspiring novelist, and a winner of National Novel Writing month, I've gone along with this little idea.
That is, until yesterday, when I decided I disagreed.

See, I am of the opinion that if characters wrote themselves, it would be a whole lot easier to write books. In my overarching book project, I have reworked and re-identified more characters than I can remember. And let me tell you, if the characters had just given me all this info about how to write them, I'd have whipped out a stunning trilogy and be working on the screenplay.

Here's how I think about it: when you start working on a character, you have a basic idea in mind. See, it's sort of like a lite brite. Remember those? Well, they were basically these things that you would poke bits of colored plastic through to make a picture. Look them up, then come back so we can keep going.

You back? Great.

Anyway, it's like when you have that first idea about the character, you stick that one colored piece of plastic into the picture. It doesn't look like much just then, just a little baby idea. But as you write you begin to stick more pieces in, and not because the character told you so. You use backstory to figure out current emotions, and use emotions to figure out backstory. It's very circular logic, which is why you can't just get the answers from some person who invaded your brain. You have to really think.

For example, say you had a character named Betty. Betty lives in a house with her mom, her dad, and her little brother. Alright, you say, where can I go with Betty? So you figure out her appearance, and maybe what she likes to do at school. These are just things you can make up, and you don't really need to know the character to get them. But then, what's the conflict of your book? Ah, zombie vampires. Classic. And this is when your brain gets working. "Perhaps she doesn't like the ZVs, ooh, or maybe she does! Maybe she's an activist for ZV rights! Hmm, but why would she be? Oh! Maybe she saw one get hit by a car, and she felt bad. Because maybe her cat got hit by a car!

And so on, and so forth.
So Rayna, from one novelist to another, I advise you to kick the shins of the next person who says writing characters is that easy.
Because let me tell you, it's far from it.
Rayna, I hope we can be NaNoWriMo buddies again next year,


  1. You are a novelist, a winner of National Novel Writing month---and quite a character as well!

  2. Great point! I will seriously smack the next person who tells me that characters are the easy part. Or for that matter, I'll smack anyone who says that anything about writing is easy.

    And yes, I do remember playing with a Lite Brite! I miss those things!