Many of you have been asking about my process for creating characters—how I came up with certain characters, and more generally, how I make my characters seem real.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may have read one of my earlier posts on organic writing. For those of you who are new to my process, being an organic writer (sometimes called a pantser, in the sense of ‘writing by the seat of your pants’) means I do minimal planning and mostly let the story go where it wills. That also applies to characters.
Contrary to a lot of advice out there, I don’t invent a character until the story calls for him or her. I liken this to the way that you don’t know who’s inside a tavern until you walk in. Suddenly, there I am, standing on the landing. A scene spreads before me, and I have to describe it. Who’s waiting there to receive my viewpoint character? It’s often as exciting a mystery to me as it is to you.
When I’m writing, I put myself in my character’s shoes, assume his or her eyes and set off on their journey. Sometimes I have a vague sense of where the character needs to go; for instance, in Paths of Alir, I knew Tanis needed to go to the Sormitáge, but that was about all I had figured out for him until after he arrived.
When I’m in a character’s viewpoint, I am being that character to the best of my ability. I’m thinking like him or her, feeling what I expect they feel, experiencing what they experience. A good writer is able to become their characters in the way a great actor becomes a role.
I maintain that anyone is capable of adopting another person’s viewpoint, of standing in their shoes and seeing what they’re seeing. It requires some practice, but in this world of bigotry and intolerance, it’s a valuable skill to master.
Many schools of fiction recommend coming up with long lists of questions to ask yourself so as to gain comprehensive knowledge of a character’s personality. For me, it’s all about the name.
There is a scene with Trell in Kingdom Blades where he meets some new people—a few are new to him, all of them are new to the reader. I rewrote this scene eleven times over the course of a month.
To save my life, I couldn’t get the scene to work. I kept struggling with the characters’ dialogue, their interaction, and in the case of one of them—a pivotal one, as it turns out—his name. His name kept cycling through a series of similar iterations, never really landing on one that resonated. I finally abandoned Trell’s story thread and went to work on another character. That’s never happened to me before. I never leave a chapter until it’s the best it can be at that point in the story…until it resonates as complete and correct.
When I finally went back in and confronted Trell’s storyline six months later, I changed that character’s name again. I’d explored about seven different names for him by that point, through the eleven versions of the chapter that I’d struggled with. Then I came upon a new, very different name: Tannour. Suddenly the character sprouted to life in my mind; instantly I knew him intimately. I’d found the magic (word) name at last.
I made some very slight changes to the last version of the chapter that I’d written, and the scene miraculously worked. With the new character in place (new because of his new name), now the story had that certain resonance I’d been seeking.
I have no idea why this happens. I cannot explain why finding the right name for a character will suddenly cause their personality to form, whole and complete, in my head. It makes no sense that a name would suddenly give me such a firm understanding of who this person is, even though I don’t know them at all. Yet that’s how it happens. As soon as the name is right, the character’s personality is there for me, even though I know almost nothing about him or her at that point.
I generally gain better ideas as to where the person came from, what drives them, and what their intentions are as the story goes along. Within a few chapters, I’ll have figured out a good portion of their back story—at least as much as is needed to influence their dialogue.
The only character I’ve ever invented ahead of the story is Isabel van Gelderan, and that was only to the degree that I thought it would be cool to have a blind character that fights with a staff. Later, I saw an opening to give Isabel this characteristic, and she became, like all the others.
There is much less method to my crazily patterned series than you might imagine, and a lot more luck of the draw than any sane-minded person would ever base their career upon. But that’s the adventure for me in writing—finding those unexpected moments when things magically connect. It’s my hope they sometimes feel magical to you as well.
What’s worked for you in creating characters? I would love to know your process.