Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Making of a Character

By Chester Campbell

Where do fictional characters come from? Technically, I suppose they boil out of that scrambled egg-looking gray matter known as our right brain. That’s generally acknowledged as the creative hot spot. But how do they get to be who they are? Sometimes they are based loosely on a real person we know, someone who possesses the characteristics we’re looking for. But for me, at least, most of them are manufactured out of pure imagination from the get-go.

There are good software programs that lead you through the process of creating characters, but I’m a seat-of-the-pants type of writer. I don’t do detailed plotting, so it is a given for me that I would bypass detailed devices for use in character development. You might say I prefer spontaneity.

If it’s a primary character, I usually start with a sketch. I write down most of the essentials, such as where and when he or she was born, who were the parents, what kind of schooling did the person have, work experience, personal entanglements—marriage, divorce, lovers, etc.

Interestingly enough, any of this may change during the writing process. For example, a character may become involved in some activity that requires prior knowledge or experience. I wasn’t aware this might happen, so I’m not prepared for it. Which brings up the beauty of fiction writing. If you need something to have happened in the past, you go back and put it in the past. Or, if necessary, you go back and change the past.

Such power! No wonder some writers tend to ooze an aura of godliness.

There are many other facets of a character that need to be worked into the story, such as an idiosyncrasy that sets him apart from others. He may have a different pattern of speech, some favorite expression, or a physical abnormality. The most memorable characters are those the reader is able to remember as uniquely different from others she has encountered.

I should add that not all of the information contained in the sketch will find its way onto the printed page. However, all of that good stuff is there to add depth if needed. Also, characters tend to mature and change as the story develops. One thing I should point out here is that although I don’t consciously plot in advance, when I’m writing a character sketch, the person’s actions involving certain plot points inevitably sneak into the picture. It’s part of the process I call unfolding of the story. I guess it’s the old right brain in action.

For more minor characters, less background is needed. Perhaps a few descriptive sentences and a brief mention of his past. The object, of course, is to create living, breathing people. If you don’t make them seem real, reviewers will thrash you for writing “cardboard” characters. Those are the literary equivalent of stick characters that kids draw.

I’m aware that several whole books have been written on how to build characters, so my little blog can only skim the surface. It’s simply my attempt to answer the number two question readers ask of writers. Number One, of course, is where do you get your ideas? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame that’s been played so many times it will probably be an Olympic sport at the 2012 games in London..

1 comment:

Ben Small said...

Chester, I've got books and books and software programs that help with that, and am aware that Elizabeth George builds whole biographies for each of her characters, sometimes the size of small books. Whew! I prefer PowerWriter, a software writing program that is compatible with Word. It's got a character database on the bottom, and one can use cut and paste to enter info, as one types it in the composition portion, or one can fill in the character info and then refer to it at a glance. It works for me, and saves me having to use the Search function to find out exactly where I placed a character's scar. Some of the books are good to suggest how certain personality traits would manifest themselves in different conditions, but I use observation as my main method of selection.