The characters are people, too

One of the biggest question you’ll tend to find on a writers discussion forum is various takes on “How do I make my characters well rounded?”

You’ll find no end of advice in all manner of different formats.  Most popular, these days, involves these strange questionnaire things.  Honestly, I could see the merit in them if it weren’t for the very undeniable fact that I’ve met few people who can answer half of those questions for themselves, let alone their characters.

My approach, and one I suspect a few other more popular authors of using (if I’m to judge by things they’ve said about their writing process) is to approach things from the point of view of Heinlein’s fictons.  Put another way, to make your characters believable and real — well rounded and three-dimensional — simply assume they are real, somewhere.

Isn’t that what the questionnaire is supposed to do?  Or any of the other myriad writing exercises?  Possibly, I couldn’t say, those always leave me scratching my head in confusion at best, or crying in frustration at worst; I leave those methods to their proponents and move on to my paper, my pen, and The Voices.

I, and many of my favourite authors, approach the character development as a process of discovery.  We might start out with something rather flat.  Lauren, for example, started out as just a petite, religious girl with boyfriend trouble — I think I did already know she was a dancer.  Sally started out, mostly, a physical description and hardly aught else.  From there I discovered many things.  Lauren’s a vegetarian, Sally’s Italian/India/Puerto Rican mix.  I learnt all manner of interesting things in the course of writing and, I imagine, I’ll learn more yet.

First off, I find this method more fun.  It means, as I’m writing, I’m just as engrossed in the story as my reader (hopefully) will be, and just as amazed by new bits of information as they.  It has an advantage, too.  One major criticism I’ve seen for many of the pre-writing character development things is that they lead to info dumping.  You learn things about your characters that do not, and will not, have any bearing on the story but now that you’ve taken the time and effort to generate this data you feel inclined to put it in.  By letting the characteristics of the story’s population grow organically in the course of writing them, you avoid this — some.  There are things I know about my characters that aren’t in the stories.  Some are from bits of discarded sentences and paragraphs, others are from the fact that, in the course of writing them I get to meet and get to know the characters and, I suppose you could say, we have our little chats about one another where little bits of interesting trivia get learnt and dutifully jotted down in my little notebook; yes, a really for real little lined blank journal type notebook — cheap, blue, recycled materials, half off at Target.

Secondly I think this keeps the characters people in the mind of the author.  You stop trying to force the story to go where you thought you wanted it to, and let it go where it leads.  This sounds like absolute chaos, oh no!  Right?  Well, no.  You’re still in something like control.  For example, if you want a happily ever after fairy tale ending you work hard to prevent that breakup looming on the horizon — and failing that, you fight like Hell to bring them back together.  The thing is, by letting it all flow naturally so that you’re no more aware that the breakup was going to loom on the horizon than the fact that it was going to do far more than just loom … well, now you’ve added a layer of conflict and drama that, given your fairy tale notions, might never have happened — a new depth and suspense to your novel — you’ve prevented it from feeling arbitrary and stilted.

Oh, sure, we’re all advocates for the way we write and critics of the ways we don’t.  I’ll admit — my way has its flaws.  For one, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’ve got more trouble with writer’s block than some other authors who take a more organised approach.  Too, it might be said that my story can get away from me, I mean how does one prevent Lisa, Allison, and Sally from turning the entire 400-odd pages of story into an endless game of strip poker?!

The reality is that you do keep ahold of the reigns of the story, even if you don’t hold them tightly.  The other is that you do think about the characters, a lot, but more casually — during dinner, or as you’re drifting off to sleep.  You ask yourself little questions, envision little scenarios and daydreams.  You ponder.  The reasons for this is so you have an idea how to steer reality.  The character might make their own decisions, but the key to keeping them out of the game of strip poker is to give them a little nudge, or hang a carrot from a stick and lead them away.  Helps to know what kind of carrot or stick to use.  So, yes, there is a margin of planning ahead — just nothing formalised at all.

I find it insanely helpful to avoid stereotyping, or at least to avoid accidental stereotyping.  Some people are stereotypes; we’ve all met them.  But by not thinking hard about the character, by not building the character we avoid our own prejudices and expectations colouring the characters.  We can have the rather dense, muscle-bound farmer from Bangladesh who happens to be an avid fan of French operas, makes a mighty mean quiche, and sleeps with a beloved little fluffy teddy bear.  We wind up with the genius computer geek and hacker who uses a stove top percolator, an old fashioned ice box instead of a refrigerator, and makes her own soap from lye from the ashes from the cast iron stove from which she heats her home.

I suppose it depends on your own perspective on what makes someone a complete character.  Me?  I define them in terms of the old greats of Speculative Fiction.  Robert Heinlein was a master of it, in my opinion.  His characters were people.  Lazarus Long, Ishtar and Hamadryad, Andrew Libby, the Rolling Stones‘ family, the fashionly challenged E. C. Gordon of Glory Road, and Friday.  All of these characters were, yes, competent and intelligent.  But they were well rounded.  They were people who wanted families, who wanted love, who had hopes, fears, uncertainties, indecisions, prejudices, hatreds, passions — perfections and flaws.  Maybe you prefer little Nim, of Nim’s Island, or Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit two more characters brought to life by little touches that — generally — come from approaching the characters as people, not as parts of a story.

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