The way my writing brain works, I don’t know a story until I know the characters involved, because the decisions they make and the way they do things will determine how that story unfolds. Characters should never lose their ability to surprise us, but we should know them so well that we can fully articulate them onto a page and still have them be real. Ask a handful of writers how they approach this and you’ll get a handful of different responses, something as personal (and personalized) as all the rest of the process.
Most of the time, when I first meet a character, it’s like I’m in a room full of people at an orientation or workshop or something of that nature where the organizers pile a bunch of strangers into a room and tell them to mingle, like that’s not awkward at all. Now me? I’m a bit of a wallflower. I’m incredibly self-conscious in social situations, so it usually takes a push to get me to talk to anyone I don’t know. Even when they’re made up people inside my head. But then, something about a person catches my attention. Maybe it’s a striking physical feature or the way he’s dressed. Maybe it’s the sound of her laughter, or he’s just told a really bad joke that has an entire knot groaning. Maybe he’s standing off by himself, watching the interactions with hungry eyes. Maybe she’s the life of the party, the one everyone else gravitates towards without thinking about it. There’s just something about the person that makes you want to know more.
So you drift over casually, and you get the chance to notice what they look like and how they’re dressed, whether or not they seem comfortable. You see how they interact (or don’t) with other people. And finally, you’re right in front of or beside the person, and your eyes flick to the sticker, half-peeling away from the fabric, that says Hello My Name Is”.
You’ve just met your character, or one of your characters, anyway.
Of course, on this first meeting, you’re not likely to get to know them very well. The information wills tay on the surface, the easy traits, the kind that anyone can notice by paying even half-attention. But there’s a connection now- you meet again. And again. And again. And each time you learn more, you go deeper. Some will spill their guts over a cup of coffee on a second date. Some you can dance with someone for years before finally admitting that there’s something utterly unfathomable about them. And some you’ll think you know pretty well until you see them with someone else, someone who brings out a very different side to them.
That first meeting is frequently a matter of luck. You just happen to be in the room with him or her. You’re daydreaming at work and suddenly something pops into your head, someone stands up in that mental green room and catches your attention and you want to know more.
I think we learn about our characters in much the same way our readers do. We get a first impression and we slowly learn more. Our readers, of course, are guided by the way we’ve chosen to represent those characters, the same way reality the TV shows carefully edit down hours of video to make you see things a certain way. We never see everything, and everything has a spin. As writers, we’re the ones deciding how we want certain people and events to be interpreted.
Unlike reality TV though, we court the element of surprise, not just our readers but for ourselves. No matter how well we think we know our characters, we still seek to be surprised by them. We want to see the bad boy reveal a soft spot. We want to see the judgy person realize she’s wrong. We want the surprises that give us a deeper understanding of them- that make them real.
Because that’s always our goal, isn’t it? We don’t want to create portraits. We want living, breathing creatures, as real on the page as off. People with secrets and goals, people who aren’t always perfect, whose actions can’t always be guessed. Sometimes the people we’re closest to surprise us the most.
Some characters can be very hard to know. They don’t reveal very much about themselves, and maybe the other characters don’t know them that well. It isn’t that they’re intentionally keeping secrets, they’re just very private. Then, something happens to crack that open and the most amazing things spill out. These characters are often the most fascinating, and frequently pivotal either to the story or the other characters. They’re there all along, usually in the background, sometimes even as a perceived obstacle, but there’s a moment when they become something extraordinary.
Characters are, or at least should be, as real and varied as the people we meet every day. They have histories and dreams and goals, they have sets of behaviors that may change depending on who they’re with, they have friends and family or reasons for not having them, but most of all, they’re dynamic. They change and grow in response to what’s happening to and around them. They can’t stand still because no one exists in a vaccuum- and anyone who actually did woulld be terribly boring to read about.
My characters like to converse with me when I’m lying in bed half-asleep. This might say more about me than it should but they’re actual conversations with statements and questions and arguments and responses. What they tell me in those almost dreaming moments is a lot more than a few words; they teach me their voice, about their families and their expectations. They teach me how they look at the world and other people. They tell me about love and all the different ways they define it.
And it all starts with that mental room, with something that catches your ear or your eye, and the courage to walk up and read the peeling sticker barely clinging to the shirt or jacket. No matter how forward your character might be, you’re the one who has to start the conversation.
So be brave.
And say hello.
Until next time~