It’s First Monday again, when I open this blog to your thoughts and questions to do with any aspect of writing and publishing. With Halloween just over and even the Australian shops still full of treat-sized chocolate and witchy products, I’m looking at our characters, the weird things they do to us – and why it’s okay.
1. Characters spring surprises
Long ago, I learned that a good character takes on a life of their own. I’ll do all the preparatory work, know their hair and eye colour, and what they want from life. Then I’ll be writing a draft and that same character will quietly let drop that they have a sister, a pet dog or an unusual hobby I didn’t know about.
Experience has shown me that this is part of my mind telling me what the story will need later on. The sibling or the hobby will turn out to be a vital part of that character’s story. I leave it in place with a side notation to check it again at the editing stage, and keep writing. Almost always, that detail will be essential to the story development.
2. Characters talk to you
A fully realised character will have their own thoughts on their world. How do you find this out? By asking them.
I learned this method from Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek universe. He took a sheet of paper – it doesn’t work as well on a screen – and drew a vertical line down the middle, creating two blank columns. On the left-hand one he wrote a question he wanted to ask the character, then wrote the character’s answer in the right-hand column.
At first this will feel forced and you’ll be aware of playing both roles, but if you persist over however many pages it takes, a spooky thing happens. The character starts to answer in their own voice, giving you insights that you hadn’t considered. Or more accurately, weren’t aware of knowing.
This process isn’t metaphysical. It’s your own subconscious revealing itself through the character, but it feels as if you really are in touch with this person, and you’ll find out far more than their physical description. Sometimes “their” insights will astonish you.
Gene Roddenberry said he used this process to create the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock, so it’s definitely worth a try.
One caveat – writing is hard work. It’s common for a minor character to insist that you write their story as well, and you may start to imagine a series featuring all these people. Whether or not this ever happens doesn’t matter. The competing ideas are your brain’s way of dodging the work ahead. Make notes on whatever comes up, then finish the current book.
3. Characters know what they want
Woe betide the author who doesn’t listen. You’ll end up with cardboard-cut-out people who do your bidding but have no life of their own.
In my Beacons science-fiction series, my three main characters are all aliens living on Earth. Elaine Lovell is a Watcher who can see whatever she chooses, wherever it may be. Her day job is media psychic. Garrett Luken is the beacon’s Listener, a former US Air Force pilot, now a best-selling sci-fi writer. Adam Desai is the team’s Messenger, a scientific genius who doesn’t know his alien history until he meets the other two.
My romantic side wanted them all partnered by series end. Elaine was the easiest, and found herself a Hawai’ian multimillionaire. Adam could only ever love the capable governor Shana Akers, who is more than his match mentally and physically.
My problem child was Garrett, gorgeous, talented and single. In three books and two novellas, I tried matching him with several other characters and he’d have none of them. Naturally, the only woman he fell for was the one I’d considered the least likely.
No spoilers, but when Garrett did let this person into his life, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of her. He knew who he wanted; I just had to take notes.
There it is, three spooky ways your characters will – like Pinocchio – become real, if you let them. Now it’s over to you to share your experiences.
Comments are moderated to avoid spam, but if you want your post to appear right away, click on “sign me up” to subscribe. I don’t share your details with anyone. How do you develop characters? Do they talk back to you? How does it affect your writing?
Check out Valerie’s online course, Free the Writer in You