How does a character talk to you?
Some writers claim a character comes to them fully formed, knocking politely on the door and waiting to be invited in and offered a cup of tea and a cream biscuit. All the necessary information about the character is formed in their heads.
Others begin with a basic sketch of the character, then develop the character through notebooks of detailed information, from date of birth, clothing, interests and hobbies, music preferences, even food allergies and the character’s belief as to why chocolate should be considered a breakfast food.
When I am writing flash fiction or a short story, I have a strong sense of the character, his/her internal and/or external motivation and decision making process. The need for detailed character development can be dispensed with in a short story or flash fiction. A few broad brush strokes allows the reader to imagine the character and to understand the immediate conflict they are facing.
I do not think of them as “fully formed” characters in the initial writing. By the end of the writing process the character has hints and suggestions of their past and who they are. The reader can extrapolate more of the character’s background and motivation from the story.
As I was writing a new short story recently, the more I wrote, the clearer the character became. It wasn’t the physical description (which I rarely use in short pieces) of the character that became clearer but the internal motivation and the way the character thought and saw the world.
I found it quite a profound experience coming to an understanding of this character and her reasons for her actions and her way of speaking. In reshaping and reworking the narrative, I have a clearer idea of the shape and form of the story because I understand the character better.
Which leads me to a problem…
A current collaborative WIP has me writing from the perspective of a male protagonist. I have the name, a setting, some background and that’s about it. The development of the narrative and the project depends on my understanding of what the character has been doing for the past twenty years as this impacts on the present.
After lots of thinking and mental composting, all I’m getting is choko vines growing over the fence. (The choko is the blandest vegetable on the face of the planet). I needed a chat with my collaborator to help produce a few tomato plants, a passionfruit vine and a crop of pumpkins. And some lettuce to make the salad (better not labour this metaphor any longer).
After a chat, I sat down some time later to write my first part of the project. I still only had a sketch in my head of the character, but enough to know his internal motivation and how he would respond to the situation. However, as I wrote, the character became more than a phantom of my imagination and more of a ‘real’ person. I understood who he was and the kind of man he is. I am sure over the next few months he will become a defined person, less two dimensional, trope, caricature or stereotype, and someone the audience can understand and relate to.
I am also in the planning stages of another novel where the characters are beginning to form in my head and in my notebook. They are taking shape, no longer formless and void, but they need to become “real” for the audience.
In extending my writing to novels from shorter flash fiction pieces, I am coming to understand the complexity and depth required in knowing a character. A novel requires greater consistency and development in a character. The character needs to act consistent with the parameters of the world of the novel. Sometimes you watch the character through CCTV and record your observations. Other times, you throw an obstacle in their way to see how they respond. Character affects plot and plot affects character.
In a YA novel I am working on, the characters are fully formed and I understand their internal and external motivations. They didn’t “speak to me” as such, rather, they developed as the novel has progressed.
This is still the beginning of the journey for me. I’ll revisit my thinking on character development after completing these projects.
How do you create characters? Do they come to you fully formed, sitting on the sofa drinking tea, or do you need to dress them like a child and teach them to speak?