First Draft Issue 8: Building character
Sometime in the past few weeks, sort of as a joke, I tweeted something about character development. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, so I’m excited to write a few thoughts down and share them with you.
As a mostly literary writer (whatever that means), I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters — who they are, where they come from, what motivates them. But until recently, I never really thought of my wonky, nonlinear process as anything like a strategy.
I’ve tried many times to use the much more organized methods I’ve learned from writing workshops and craft books, like the questionnaires that ask for a character’s memory from childhood and a favorite book, food, movie, etc. But no matter how clever or thoughtful the questions are, something about going through a list like that makes me feel like I’m back in school filling out a worksheet.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking them — they’re extremely useful if that’s the way your brain works. But after I get through a few prewritten questions, I shut right down, because they don’t feel like my questions tailored for my characters.
The process I use is not that much different, however. It’s just more targeted to whatever project I’m working on. I like to go back and forth between writing the story and whipping out a notebook to sit myself down with the characters so that I can spend time with them and find out what makes them tick. If I’ve already written a good chunk of their story (which usually I have), all the better, because I’ve already started to get to know them. Now I just have to go deeper.
In my notebook, I ask myself lots of questions about characters, but I don’t worry about answering all of them. As long as I keep the questions in mind, I find that the answers come out in the writing. And then I go back and forth between writing and note-taking or Q&A, so that I can both spend time with my characters in action and refine what I need to ask/answer about them based on what the story needs or where I’m stuck.
For example, for the brand new novel I’ve started, I asked and/or answered the following questions very early on in my notebook:
What does E want? Does she get it? How does she change as a result if yes/no? What’s in her way? She has no kids, but did she ever want to be a mother? If so, why isn’t she? How did her ex-husband treat her when they were married? What does she want from life that she couldn’t have with him? What does she daydream about?
And then I free-wrote a chapter with these details fresh in my mind.
Later I listed the following:
E is roughly 30, younger than B (husband), and from an affluent family. Groomed to marry someone like B. Doesn’t want kids. Doesn’t love B anymore.
And then I free-wrote another scene with these new details fresh in my mind.
With each round, my goal is to get closer to who the characters are, how each one fits into the story, and how they affect one another, and I feel like I can best achieve this through my combination of writing and note-taking.
It’s also important to me that my characters don’t feel like clichés but living, breathing, (and often deeply flawed) people. The best advice I’ve gotten about this is to look at them through a keyhole — or be specific. Take this example that I tweeted about as a sort-of joke:
Last weekend I was watching a live performance, and there were four people on stage.
They were all women.
They all had long hair.
They all wore stylish clothes and expensive shoes.
They all had water bottles on the floor next to their chairs.
Can you begin to see these women? What kind of picture is forming in your imagination?
What if I add the following details?:
One of them had a slick stainless steel reusable water bottle.
One of them had a bottle of a generic brand of water.
One of them had a mason jar full of water with half a lemon in it.
Can you see them a little more clearly now? What if I add the following details?:
The woman with the mason jar’s expensive shoes were heavily scuffed.
She had an acoustic guitar, and when she played, her feet turned in shyly.
Notice which physical details add to your sense of who someone is and which ones feel extraneous. What accounts for the difference? When I take time to describe someone’s physical appearance in my writing, I try to keep this question in mind and only include the details that help to reveal something meaningful about character. As a reader, I find that when authors do this, I can fill in a full picture with my imagination, and it allows the story to flow more naturally.
Finally, one last thing I sometimes do when I’m creating or fleshing out a character is to look at portrait photography. I’m not necessarily looking for an exact picture, but trying to get an idea of what a character looks like. I might even use multiple portraits of different people for inspiration for a single character. And I don’t use them simply as a reference for physical description; photos help me get to know who they are, how they take up space, what secrets they might be keeping — from the world as well as themselves.
I feel like this has gotten a little rambly, but I hope something here is helpful! To summarize, I’ll say that I’ve come to this process over many years, through trying different things and using my instincts. Writing is a deeply personal experience, and ultimately you’ll find what works for you. It may change from project to project, but that’s all part of the creative process — and the fun. So enjoy yourself this week, and I look forward to next time!