The Mysterious Character Syndrome: When a fringe character rears his head and demands mainstream attention | Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

The Mysterious Character Syndrome: When a fringe character rears his head and demands mainstream attention

I’m still on this subject of character development. It’s a hot topic among fiction writers—or at least among bloggers, who seem to think it’s a hot topic among fiction writers. In any event, all of the recent posts flying about the blogosphere on the subject have certainly garnered my interest and attention. So I’ve hooked my soapbox up out of the Oregon mud, and here I stand, slightly damp but no less opinionated for it. 

And my platform, ladies and gents, is but a single word: Organic.

I’m a big fan of the word organic.  It’s a nice, versatile word that can be applied to everything from how you grow tomatoes to the way you develop a story…or a character.   

I think character development should be a mutual experience of growth. You create relationships with your characters as you journey through the story, which itself is growing out of your mutual creation—that is, the creation shared between you and your characters.  Look, you can spend hours noting down every mundane detail about some character you’ve consciously set out to create—hair and eye color, even their favorite color—and still be nowhere in terms of knowing that character.  Trying to plan out everything about a character before you begin writing him—before he even says a word—is like attempting to paint the sunrise during the grey light of dawn. Sure, you’ll have something on the canvas when the sun finally comes up, but it might not resemble in the least what you’re witnessing in the sky.

As any seasoned fiction writer will tell you, characters have a tendency to create themselves despite your best efforts. Hell, you can’t even get them to do what you tell them to half the time—and these are the ones you already have “well developed.” You set out to write a scene that’s mostly outlined in your head, and when all is said and done, it comes out nothing like what you envisioned. Yet when this happens, I maintain that’s when you know you’re doing it right. Because in real life, you can’t predict what everyone will say in a conversation—or in any given situation, for that matter. You think you might know, but ultimately, people surprise you. When you find realism occuring while writing your story, you’ll know your characters are becoming real, too. 

One blog I read on character development noted that if you treat your characters like real people, you’ll find that getting them to behave like real people comes much more easily. This is a brilliant statement. Unfortunately, the same author went on to list out a hundred questions to ask yourself in order to create this “person.” I think we’ve missed the forest for the trees, folks.

If you sat down at Moe’s Diner with a real person and said to them, “Hi, I’m [your name here]. Nice to meet you.  Now, I have this list of questions…” and proceeded to rattle off a hundred and one points like an oral exam, the person would ditch you, and the tab, long before Flo came back with your pie. 

Well, so will a character. It’s actually a law (so sayeth I). The more you pursue a character outside of the dialogue arena, the more they’ll elude you. It’s communication that establishes what’s real, you see (and oh, isn’t that a heady topic for another blog post). Nevertheless, my point is you can’t create a “real” character unless you communicate with them.

Yes, you probably ought to know if your character has blue eyes or brown. But you don’t need to know this detail until it’s time to present it in the story to your readers. There’s a difference between character development and plot development. The latter needs to be well thought out (at least if you hope to minimize agonizing rewrites), but the former, in truth, can be as much of an adventure as telling the story itself.

Allow me an illustrative digression:

When I first began writing Cephrael’s Hand (the ancient date of which falling somewhere between the Santa Maria banging its hull against America’s toe and the genus of the internet), I created a character named Björn. In his entourage was an impudent zanthyr named Phaedor. Now, I made up the name zanthyr off the top of my head as I wrote the scene. It sounded cool. I wondered what a zanthyr would be and decided he would have two forms, one human, one animal, and since zanthyr rhymed with panther, I gave him wings because nothing is cooler than a gigantic predatory cat that can fly. 

Now, those of you who’ve read my novel(s) will shriek to know it was originally my intention to kill Phaedor off near the end of that first draft. Please try to contain your horror, for what happened instead is the proof for this post. 

True to form, Phaedor had no intention of being dispensed with like an inconsequential paper bag sticky with the remains of my kids’ PB&J. Though he was a very different character at the beginning of that earliest chapter, by the time I neared conclusion of my first draft, he had become so compelling, so pivotal, that I couldn’t conceive of losing him. And as my readers well know, now I simply couldn’t tell the story without him.

Not to belabor the point, but to be clear, Phaedor was not the product of a character schematic explored and defined with exhaustive detail. He was born into the story by the magic that is creation and grew as he built relationships with other characters, as my own relationship with him grew. I learned about him along with everyone else by observing his interaction in dialogue. Fourteen versions and seventeen years later, I understand him better than my kids.

Listen, you can’t know what lies beyond the next hill when the next hill doesn’t exist until you write it. Lists can be helpful, but they can’t be the end-all, be-all. Let your characters come alive as you write and relish the endless surprises they’ll provide you. That’s when you’ll find the thrill and adventure of storytelling really begins.

What works for you? Have lists been truly helpful or do you have another means of bringing your characters to life?


4 Responses to “The Mysterious Character Syndrome: When a fringe character rears his head and demands mainstream attention”

  1. Rachel Karl says:

    Melissa, I love how you define character development as an organic process. I think sometimes we DO get caught up in trying to plan out every last detail down to how many hairs in their nose a character has, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s a challenge to be sure, because you have to know your character well enough before writing them into the story, but I love those moments when the characters begin to take over the story AS you’re writing it, and you as the author can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next! You have done such an incredible job of creating such real characters that drive the story forward, and you have a natural balance of where to draw the line on too much character / not enough story, so it’s great to hear your perspective on how to do this!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thanks, Rachel. I think the process must in some ways vary for every author. Some have immense success with that nose-hair plotting you mentioned, while others scrape by with what seems like the barest sense of the character themselves.

      Certainly for a story like mine, which I could hazard to say is more about character than conflict (because the interest is actually in the way the characters are going to solve this immense conflict), there seems to be a little of both sides of this equation. Often it feels like it does when meeting someone for the first time: you get a sense of them, but you need the dialoge (and the story) to continue to play out to really get to know them well.

  2. Heidi Kemp says:

    Melissa is my heroine: even her blog posts are so much fun to read. I gasped aloud when I contemplated the possibility of Phaedor being KILLED OFF! That would have been a travesty, especially since I happen to know Melissa is a little… maybe even a lot.. in love with him. One of my favorite things (and greatest honor) of being Melissa’s friend, is seeing her “interact” with her characters. She feels their pain, she thrills to their victories, she swoons at their loves and giggles at their humor. Wow, to be able to not only imagine, envision and describe (eloquently!) whole worlds, but to people them with real characters, then breathe life into those characters such that they take on life of their own… whoa, true art. “Organic” is freaking awesome! Thanks for sharing, Mel.

Leave a Comment