the voices in my head are not all fictional

but the vast majority are. I don’t even know who they all are at this point, but I suppose I’ll meet them someday. That’s fine. In theory, the longer they rattle around in there, the better I’ll know them when it’s time to tell their stories. Until then, however, they sometimes amount to clutter. The impenetrable crowd (mosh pit, perhaps) at a loud rock show, when I need to find my friend — the short one, wearing all black.

Character building and development are among the most important things in a story for me. When I’m reading or even watching a movie or TV show, if the characters don’t seem like real, layered people, it takes me out of the story, and I usually don’t return. I don’t have to like them; in fact, the characters I gravitate toward are often detestable and hating them is part of the appeal. Most of the best characters, be they “good” or “bad” are people I would loathe and avoid in real life.

There’s a ton to be said on why villains are more fun to watch and write, but I think mostly it boils down to a sort of freedom they have. Freedom from doing what’s “right” or “good” allows them to give into whatever devilish impulses they may have and carry them out with glee. Thing is, villains are the heroes in their own stories, and a lot of them have rules. They just make them up for themselves. They worry less about what some arbitrary system of morality or laws says they should do and more about what they want to do, about what they think is right (for them). They’re unpredictable, to varying degrees. Good guys get boring because we know how they’ll react. We know they’ll do the upstanding, moral, right thing, and rescue a puppy on the way. That’s nice and all, but, yawn.

I like my heroes with a little anti- on them. I have since I was a kid. All about Han Solo, no patience for Luke Skywalker. Han and Leia were my people. Yes, Leia is categorically on the hero side all the way, but A) she’s a sassy badass and 2) she borders on villain behavior in that she is so driven by getting the rebellion to succeed, she’ll do whatever it takes to get to the end goal, even if she wanders into some moral grey areas. She’s fascinating because she’s still a bit unpredictable, even though you know she wants to do the right thing. If that puppy is in her way, she’s as likely to shoot it as she is to delay the mission to save it. She’s not perfect, and that lends her credible humanity. And again, she’s a badass. That always helps.

So when I’m the one creating the characters, all this stuff is rattling in my head. Develop them! Make them believable, real people! What are they doing right now? Why? I often come back to the what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” He meant this broadly, but also specifically, as in, scene-by-scene. Why is that person in the room, and what do they want to be the outcome of this situation?

Knowing all the whats and whys that motivate characters is a large part of the work of writing that the reader doesn’t see. The thinking, the writing that doesn’t go in the story, that’s background. That’s stuff the reader needs to feel and understand without reading. The writer’s job is to put all that detail and history that scarred this character into behaviors and reactions, with minimal exposition. By the time the exposition comes, the reader should be suspecting something like it, then think “Aha, that explains it.”

As with most things, I don’t have a specific way of figuring out who my characters are. I think about them and make notes. I’ve written character sketches for some, had conversations with others and just spent a lot of time thinking through different scenarios and how characters might respond. Some things change as the writing goes on and I figure out a bit more about them after spending more time with them in their own world, rather than just my head. When I can’t fully hear the person I need to get through that mosh pit, it’s frustrating, of course, but if I can focus enough and ask myself enough questions about them, eventually they make it out of the crowd. It’s the focusing that’s the tricky part. Sometimes having the blank page and trying to work up a bit of a sketch is helpful as a thing to focus on, other times it’s not.

I am nothing if not inconsistent in my methods. But this makes me unpredictable, and by my own rules, an interesting character, yes?

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