Friday, March 27, 2009

Collecting Character

I’ve been procrastinating about making my list of personal favorite protagonists to analyze here. Actually, I’ve made it, but what came up was complicated in a way I wasn’t expecting and I haven’t had time to put in words what I learned when I did it.

The truth is, I’m still, STILL struggling with this question of “How do you create character?”

Now, you’d think that would be the easiest thing in the world for a writer to answer, right? As essential skills go, that’s about as basic as it gets. And here I’ve even been writing about it, lately. But the more I write about it, the more I realize I don’t think about it, I just do it.

But this is my theory for the day. I think all writers are always collecting characters as we go along. Not just characters of course, we’re collecting EVERYTHING. Bits and pieces of story. An interesting dynamic between people. A theme. A great character back story. A cool occupation. The look of someone’s eyes. A burning ambition. Hundreds of thousands of bits of flotsam and jetsam that we stick in the back of our minds like the shelves full of buttons and ribbons and fabrics and threads and beads in a costumer’s shop. Or like the prop warehouse that was in the vast basement under the theater at Berkeley – cages and cages and cages of (somewhat) categorized props – medieval, Renaissance, Greek, sci fi, fantasy.

To completely shift metaphors, I could also say that we take clippings of people, like you take clippings of plants, and grow them in a vast mental greenhouse until they’re fully formed or at least formed enough to plant somewhere where they will take root on their own.

The truth is I rarely start a story from a character – it’s usually more a situation, although the situation will usually dictate quite a bit about the characters involved. If I want to write a story about a haunting in an old Victorian college dorm, that dictates that the main characters are going to be college kids. College kids have to have majors and it’s more interesting to have contrasting characters so assigning contrasting majors is going to further define character. I think books without sex are pretty much useless (at least to me) so that means at least some of these characters are going to be what I consider sexy, and my odd and eclectic personal tastes in all that is going to give at least some of these people an edge. Also my personal theories about how a haunting happens is going to have a huge influence on the psychology of these characters, and so on, and so on. So, yes, I can sort of fake an explanation about how I build characters from scratch.

But I think what happens more often than not is that at a certain point in outlining a plot, some of these characters I have growing or cooking back there in the costume shop or green house or prop warehouse or whatever you want to call it just step forth and take their place in the situation. Not only that (to confuse the metaphors all to hell), I think I have some actual ACTORS back there in my mental wings who are able to play different parts. There are certain characters who keep showing up in my writing, maybe heavily disguised and people don’t even necessarily recognize that they’re the same character, but I know it’s the same entity. Actors.

So yes, there are techniques you can use – give a character a burning desire (in the story AND in each scene) and a terrible secret, give them an arc, give them good scenes to play, give them dialogue tics, use shadow forms of mental disorders to define them, use Greek and other archetypes to define them...

But the real secret for me is - always be collecting. The grossly obese, anal retentive project manager of the construction that’s currently making life in my neighborhood a misery, and his skinny hawk-nosed weaselly media relations sidekick – you better believe they’re going to end up villains in a piece, and die oh-so-violently.

The good and the bad - you have to invite those potential characters in and let them live and grow inside your head. Yes, it gets pretty crowded in there after a while... but it’s all worth it when that perfect character for a scene or the perfect villain or protagonist just walks out onto the page, fully formed.

So is this ringing any bells, or is that just totally me?

Have you collected anyone or anything interesting lately?

- Alex


I’m very pleased - or scared - to announce that tomorrow I will be hosting J.A. Konrath on the nine hundred and forty-ninth stop on his mind-boggling blog tour for his new horror novel, AFRAID, written under his pen name, Jack Kilborn. Joe, or Jack, depending on who shows up, will be breaking down a scene from AFRAID to analyze the suspense techniques he uses.

I can’t wait!


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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BT said...

Are you sure we're not some distant relation from a long forgotten pagan tribe or something?

I love to watch people. I still in my local shopping mall and create situations for the people who walk by, or see if I can describe them and a personal habit I notice as if I'm writing their description in a story.

I'm sure people think I'm stalking them, or a twisted PI or something.

Very much like you, (or are you like me) I start with a situation and and characters arrive to populate the parts I have available.

Once they arrive I have a long in depth chat with them to get a background and a better feel for them. I'm still waiting for my great serial character to show themselves - one day...

Delta Dupree said...

I do! Like BT, I love watching people, always have. Back during my teenage years (looong time ago, btw) a group of us use to go to the airport just to watch folks. People are weird, funny, exasperating...

Actually, I unnerved a hair stylist because I watched every move she made, how she carried herself, the facial expressions, listened to her voice, etc. I later explained I was a writer looking for a story character (not a beautician), which put her at ease. I've been known to stare too hard at people and for too long. Folks can be funny about that.

Gayle Carline said...

I guess I'm trying to figure out - if you're a writer who doesn't watch your world, what do you write about? I certainly file away people whose personalities might bring an extra dimension to a story. I wrote FREEZER BURN with the idea of writing a series based on a woman PI, and based a number of the characters on either people or types of people I've seen. Being a mom, I've met a fair number of other moms who, although they stay at home and walk their kids to school, designer sweats, cuppa Starbucks and all, they are wound tighter than any CEO. I put one of those in my book, because they fascinate me. I also have an engineer, because I'm around a lot of those guys and know them well. My lead character is mostly the sassy side of me, only taller. And her BFF is Suzanne Pleshette.

The book I'm working on now has a lot of country club women and their husbands. I've met some of those recently. They're nice, but there's this intangible quality of "better" about them. Of course, my characters will not turn out to be so much "better" after all... LOL.

Gayle Carline

JA Konrath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Long distant relation from a long forgotten pagan tribe... I would think absolutely.

BT, you've said this better than I did:

"I start with a situation and characters arrive to populate the parts I have available."

Yeah, that's really more what it is. I keep thinking of how auditions were like when I was a theater director. We'd have these parts, and we knew a lot about those characters, but the characters weren't real until the actors showed up and then we made choices about who was the best person for the role and then the actor took off with it.

Somehow that process now exists completely inside my head.

It's freaky.

JA Konrath said...

I'm thrilled to be here, Alex, and concerned I won't measure up. This is the most comprehensive and insightful blog about the craft and structure of writing that I've come across. The amount of good advice, and the examples you use to support that advice, are staggering.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Airports are some of the best people watching there is.

And you're right, Delta - I get a lot of characters from sitting in salons - I guess partly because there's nothing else to do BUT watch people.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ooh, Gayle, the country club mystery is just my kind of setting. I mean, because it's so NOT my kind of setting. Can't wait to see what you do with that!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, thanks, Joe, that's a huge compliment from someone whose blog is required reading for anyone even remotely considering publishing.

And I love the segment of AFRAID you're doing for us tomorrow - it's completely involving and at the same time a great example of a lot of suspense techniques I've been trying to talk about here.

I have a few things to say about it myself.

Gayle Carline said...

Alex - My friend and I had a great conversation with two of the "upper echelon" women that I'm dying to work into the book. We were discussing what we throw together for dinner at the end of a hectic day. The country club gals were expounding on the virtues of portabella mushrooms and how easy it is to toss a little mango salsa together, etc. My girlfriend leaned into me and whispered, "it's chicken fingers and ketchup at our house," while maintaining a very perfect nod-and-smile attitude toward the other two women. I felt lucky to be in on such a priceless moment - that I could write about later!

Bobby Mangahas said...

When I lived in Boston, I would ride the train from one end of the line to the other and just watch people. By the timed I moved away, I had a huge notebook filled with interesting characters that I could mix and match.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen it in awhile. I wonder if it got up and walked away.

Holly Y said...

I haven't before thought about where exactly my characters come from. I am so people driven, that a character usually comes to me in a specific, usually uncomfortable circumstance.

I think about Judas Iscariot and wonder what he would be like as a woman, or a Chinese man. What about a priest raising his sister's kid?

Right now I'm thinking a lot about the composer Vivaldi who was the Director of Music at an orphanage for girls. That sounds like a great set-up. For me the hard part -- making that into a story.

This is where your blog is helping me so much. I'm moving beyond these snippets of circumstance and into real, complete tales.