My Favourite Horoscope

from John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist:

“Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility:

wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections);

obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true);

childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing);

a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes);

remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation);

a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion;

patience like a cat’s;

a criminal streak of cunning;

psychological instability;

recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence;

and finally, an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good.

Not all writers have exactly these same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds one who is not abnormally improvident.”

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?