Speak to Me – Does Your Character Talk to You?

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?

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6 responses to “Speak to Me – Does Your Character Talk to You?

  1. I’ve only written short stories and flash fiction so far, and the characters usually come fully formed to me. Although my short fiction pieces generally generate from a scene in my head and the characters just seem to fall into place, so maybe that has something to do with it.

    However, I did just start working on a novel, well actually two. And I’ve found that I put a lot more work into shaping and developing the characters. So, for me, I guess it depends on the length and type of story I’m writing.

    Great post! Really got me thinking about my character development. 🙂

  2. Loved the post! I’ve wondered the same question.

    I’m like Ally, short stories usually come in a scene with characters that just fit. For the longer stories that I’ve been working on, I’ll usually start with a very vivid scene and character, but have to spend a long time developing that character and keep them changing in order to make them real for the entire novel.

    Good luck on the novel! 🙂

  3. I’ve been writing only flash fiction and poetry recently and, as you pointed out, less detail is required in developing characters. [Although, I still want them to feel “real.”] I have some longer pieces planned and I’m curious how you keep track of the details for your characters. I know some writers keep a notebook or file folder for each major character. Some have a bulletin board to keep notes and sketches visible while they write. There is dedicated software like Storybook or general tools like spreadsheets and databases. Someone recently posted about using Posterous to develop characters. What works for you? And how many ways did you try before you found what works for you?

    • I keep a notebook of my ideas. This is the first way I’ve tried. I have not tried software although I know people who do. For me it’s the accessibility of pen and paper that attracts me.
      One of my WIP is a serial I am turning into a novel. I went back and reread the material, made notes of character names and began to fill out some of the personality traits of each character, plus story arc, plot points etc. I am not sure how detailed notes should or could be. In my mind the characters are real, but the test will be in the beta phase. Readers will be able to identify a “real” character.
      However, I think the type of character used in a novel is quickly recognised by the audience and they extrapolate the extra meaning the author implies. Therefore, lots of detail about a character may not be needed. The writing rules suggest we show a character by their words and actions, whereas novels in the “classic” sense often spend a great deal of time discussing a character. Wonder if we can blend the two ideas in a modern novel?

  4. Fowlis and Grey are very much fully-formed characters but they’re more like independent entities who operate under their own steam. Other characters like Liss or Captain Scarlight were characters who gave me an initial idea but who let me get to know them better through thd stories.

    But most of my characters simply come equipped with enough background info to satisfy the needs of the story, and I know I won’t be dealing with them again.

  5. I think it’s all about the point of the piece. I’ve written mini-character studies where nothing much happens plot wise cause i’m aiming for a quick and dirty exposé of the character so it’s all about their quirks, their thoughts, their behaviors. I’ve also written pieces that were completely plot driven so the the character only served as someone that the event was happening to.
    Novels, I think, are a bit of both. You need that interplay you were talking about where the plot evolves the characters and the characters help to evlove the plot. In my experince, things have fleshed themselves out as i’ve gone along with a varity of notes, scenes typed out in a mad rush of brilliance that then requred a tweak in the plot, flashes of insight where I realized how the plot required this backstory from this character to make their evolution meaningful, stuff like that. I always keep a word document open when i’m doing a novel as my brainstorming space. I’ll ask myself open-ended questions, type out those scenes that I need to fit in later, write up timelines for my charater’s lives, whatever. It’s the messiest, most disorganized word document ever but it gets the job done.

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