There are a lot of things in the world that are self-evident. Things we just know, things that are just obvious, things that prove themselves
Kittens are cute. Popcorn has no inherent flavour. Orange is the new black. Characters should be characters.
It’s the last one of those four that I want to talk about today. Specifically, this article is going to talk about how I build my characters. .
Again, to be clear – this might not be how you do things, your methods and results may vary. This is (just) my design.
Usually, when I create a character I start with a notion of what I want or need the character to be for the story they’re to feature in and then work backwards from there. I build a logical backstory that would shape a personality into a “present-day-self” (that is to say, the present day version of the character as they appear in the story). This process includes plenty of research and, inevitably, leads to me changing plenty of things in the present-day version of the character as I discover more things that I’d like to include.
In my last article I gave you an excerpt from my work-in-progress novel, Disjuncture, in which I alluded to a character named Molly, and I’m going to use her as an example, more or less spoiler free, of this process.
Though at the time her name was Quinlan (or Finley before that), Molly Stroud was where the various ideas I had for Disjuncture came together into something resembling a cohesive narrative.
The initial concept for the character was that of a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, who’d survived an exorcism. I wanted to explore the aftermath of that kind of experience, what it would be like for someone who’d previously had no concept or notion of the supernatural to survive something as raw and hideous as possession. That sort of thing is world changing, after all – whether someone has prior beliefs regarding the supernatural or not.
This is where research began – and believe me when I say that’s not always a pleasant subject. I read article after article and several books on the psychology of trauma survivors. I consulted several experts on the subject and, though it did make me question the morality of writing it at all, I started to build a believable profile for what would become Molly.
Things from both before, during, and after her supernatural experience were fleshed out. Some of them were major. For example, the thing possessing her shifted from being a demon to a ghost, she became Irish, had a terrible relationship with her dogmatic parents, and was once part of a fairly successful metal band. Others were fairly minor, but nevertheless helped me get to know her – she hates olives, her childhood crush was Louis Brooks whom she saw in Wellman’s 1928 black and white film, “Beggars of Life” (incidentally, watching old movies with her parents is one of the only pleasant memories she has about the elder Strouds), and despite being quite good at mathematics it was always her least favourite subject in school.
As this profile grew, the story changed. For example, while initially the story was going to revolve around the immediate aftermath of the exorcism (as in, the completion of the ritual was going to be the prologue), I decided to alter it to be a good number of years later. This gave me more time to play with other factors in the story and show how Molly – now in her early thirties – had tried to move on with her life.
With this baseline in mind and the story starting to take shape around her, I had a place to start actually writing.
Playdates and Growing Up
Once I have a basic (if mutable) character history established, I usually get started writing. This is where the little details start to come into play (Molly’s aforementioned hatred of olives, for example) and I start to ask myself questions that I’d not addressed in my initial profile.
How tall is my character in relation to others, for example? How do other people see them, at first glance? While there are plenty of stories that never actually describe their characters’ appearance, most of my stories do. In many cases, physical characteristics are important to give a character a grounding in reality so that the reader can see them in their mind.
(I want to take a quick moment and stress that does not apply to all stories. There are plenty of excellent stories written that never describe any of the characters. It’s not a requisite for good writing.
But I digress.)
We can go deeper. Your character is introduced to other members of your cast, and different people will react in different ways. How does someone with Background A react to someone whose attitude is shaped by Background B? Does Character A, who is male and straight, react differently to Character B who is female and attractive than he might to react to Character C, who is male? Are your characters prejudiced in some way? Do they maybe have a history with one another, and if so, how does that impact their reunion?
Let’s look at Molly again.
Molly is tall and willowy, with features a generally considered too sharp for her to be seen as classically beautiful. Her appearance is further “marred” (by her standards, at least) by her once-vibrant red hair looking dull, her skin being a little naturally ashen, and her left eye being dead and white – all side-effects of her possession. These are things she is insecure about, and as such she is uncomfortable with others seeing her. To combat this, she wears sunglasses to keep her eyes covered and does what she can to dye or cover up her hair. Meeting new people is an uncomfortable process for her, and she’ll spend a long time getting ready to make herself look at normal as possible if she’s forced to.
Molly’s parents were deeply, almost fanatically Catholic (we’re talking Margaret White levels here), and as a result she’s instinctively put off and wary of religious people. When meeting a police officer with a cross around his neck, for example, her reaction is instinctively (and perhaps unfairly) hostile.
He, on the other hand, doesn’t notice her eye (thanks to her sunglasses), but recognises her from her band days. His daughter is a fan, and he is excited at the prospect of meeting celebrity. He just assumes that her beanie and sunglasses are just part of her trying to go about incognito, and treats them as such. Further, he’s a single father and she’s an attractive woman, not much younger than he is, so his reaction is entirely different. So much so, in fact, that he doesn’t even register her discomfort, let alone begin to guess as to why it might be.
While writing the actual story, I naturally want my characters to grow (or not, if that’s the point, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish) as my plot progresses. Stories are built on characters, and seeing how they are changed by – and change – the plot is really where the heart of most stories lie. Their interactions with other characters, being exposed to new points of view, or experiencing new things can all have a major impact on them, and for me exploring that transformation is perhaps the greatest pleasure I can have as a writer.
I start asking myself questions in one of two forms. The first is a direct, somewhat linear approach to working out character development. For example:
“How would Character A change, both in the short and long term, if Event B happened?”
The second form of the question is one that comes up when I have a specific change in mind for a character, usually to facilitate some aspect of the plot. This happens more rarely, but it usually arrives in the form of:
“What would make Character A change enough to do Thing B?”
This can be a tricky thing, since if it’s not handled well it can feel like I shoehorned an event in just to trigger a change in a character, at which point the story can stop being a story and start being a series of plot devices.
Ultimately, when a project is complete, I find it interesting to see just how my characters have changed along the way. The story, after all, has now become part of their backstory.
To avoid spoiling my entire novel, I’m going to talk about Molly’s evolution in the broadest sense with only one or two details for this example.
At the start of Disjuncture, Molly is a bit of a recluse, making her living off of written music, royalties from her band days, and what is essentially a form of disability money sent to her from the organisation that performed her exorcism. She’s still scared, still haunted (literally and figuratively), and still traumatised by what happened. Even if she’s found a way to make it through her day to day life, she’s in a holding pattern, just existing rather than really living, and that’s where the story intervenes to wrench her out of it.
As with many people, she’s resistant to this change. She’s scared, and all she really wants to do is hide. Initially, she doesn’t want anything to do with people or things that threaten to change her life (no matter how stagnant it is), that might make her confront (or even remember) what happened, but events unfold to motivate (or force) her to do just that. This leads to not just a change of her circumstances, but in her as well. She transforms, page by page, into a more proactive character, and by the end of the story the new Molly Stroud might not be recognisable in comparison to the old.
Letting Them Go
For me, and (I hope) for many of you, there comes a point where characters start to develop themselves. Things start feeling natural, like the characters are people that I know rather than things I’ve made. It becomes more of a question of creating a situation and just trying to predict how a character will react.
And ultimately that’s the dream. I want characters like Molly to become as real as I can make her. I want her and others like her to run wild in whatever world I’ve created.
There is, after all, that old adage about setting free the things you love.