Building Character

I’ve fallen in love with my main characters, like I once fell in love with Lady Brett Ashley, Anne Shirley, and this half-Vietnamese boy Lee from John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. I want them all to be happy. I want to keep getting to know them. I get so excited when they say things.

Once I was deciding whether I was going to be a lawyer. My friend Jenny, a lawyer, asked me  whether I had experienced my characters speaking to me, as she’d heard other writers claim. “Of course,” I told her. She advised me not to become a lawyer.

I’d like to pretend that I don’t actually believe that. Unfortunately, I have created characters that are, to me at least, fully dimensional enough that I can imagine what they will say next, or how they would react. This is the same as imagining how a close friend would react if, let’s say, I punched him in the face.

(For plot reasons, characters have to almost always be getting punched in the face.)

My friend Robyn of Walk Through Puddles wrote a great comment today asking me how I go about creating characters. I create characters by writing them a story. All I need is an inkling of a character idea, even just one strong trait, and from there I place the character in a situation they would find themselves in and determine how they would react, and how they would deal with the other characters present. I learn best by writing, and by following my intuition, so this works better for me than the classic character sketch.

Because I’m working on one novel right now, character creation happens by dropping a character into my story. The character will hopefully serve a purpose, and will get developed through their relationship with my other characters, and especially my main character, Jillian.

My favourite quote about writing characters comes from my favourite book about writing, On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner:

Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him, something he can pick up and throw, if necessary, or eat, or give to his girlfriend.

Plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader) what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choice and action, transforms him from a static construct to a lifelike human being making choices and paying for them or reaping the rewards.

And theme exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the character’s main problem is.”

Any other advice on writing characters? Or some affirmation that characters also speak to you in your sleep? Any lawyers with characters who speak to them in their sleep?

2 thoughts on “Building Character

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