“Building” Characters?

Hey Folks,

Some writers (and probably all of them/us at first) believe they have to “build” or “create” characters. Some folks even go so far as to create a “character sketch” to one degree or another.

The character sketch might be so detailed as to include the character’s educational background, childhood experiences, and anything else. It’s the story of the character.

Most often, writers who do this begin with a stick figure and then flesh it out. Those writers “assign” various physical, mental and emotional traits and “know” the character thoroughly before they begin writing the story.

Most often, these are the same writers who plot every step of a novel before they ever begin writing.

Of course, there are “hybrid” writers who create and use character sketches but also write without an outline when the time comes.

If either of these is how you write, that’s perfectly fine. Seriously, whatever works for you.

The way I see it, regardless of all the various ways there are to create a story, all writers fall into one of two overall categories:

The Almighty Writer On High — This writer is the god of his fictional world. He dictates (again, to one degree or another) who the characters Are (education, life experiences, etc.) and what the characters say and do. In short, this writer is in complete control of his characters.

This writer also most often dictates plot points, twists and turns, and most often knows what will happen “next” in the story, often all the way to the end. But this topic is about characters.

The Recorder — This writer has ceded control of the story to the characters.

So yes, he is also in charge at first. After all, how can you “cede” control if it isn’t yours to cede?

But this writer’s control ends where the characters’ control begins. Basically, it ends when the writer puts his fingers on the keyboard.

This writer realizes this is not “his” story but the characters’ story. So he chooses to let the characters tell it.

As a result, the characters go where they want, say and do what they want, and pretty much dare the recorder (the writer) to keep up.

After all, he isn’t part of the characters’ world or their story. He simply happened upon some interesting people, thought their story would be interesting, and asked permission to come along for awhile so he could record it.

Fortunately, the characters thought that would be fine.

What ensues from that moment forward is the characters’ story without so much as a single heavy fingerprint of the human “writer” on it.

Maybe the best part of this approach is that the writer learns about the characters as they develop, just as he does with “real” people he meets. The difference is, if he doesn’t like these characters, he can cause them to be killed off without having to endure all the bother of formal charges, a trial, and possible prison time.

Again, whether you choose to be the Almighty Writer on High or The Recorder is strictly up to you. Either way is fine with me. Whatever works.

But just in case you’ve been the former and are interested in trying on the latter, here’s one way (my way) to get there.

Back when I first decided to become the interested but non-controlling Recorder, I envisioned myself on a battlefield of sorts, one with trenches.

The trenches are the story, and that’s where the characters are: down in the story.

When I first started writing, I set myself up in a tower, far distant from the battlefield, and observed the action through a powerful telescope.

I watched what happened, could see what was coming, and anticipated what would happen if this character moved here and that character moved there, and they did and said this or that or the other.

And I directed them.

Now get this — because I’m only human, I was unable to think any thoughts that were different than the thoughts any reader might think if he were standing in the tower with me. So the stories “I” told were not only distant, but boring and predictable.

Later, I realized if I got closer to the battlefield I could see the action in greater detail. But I was still directing the characters and events. The stories improved — they weren’t as distant and  were more detailed — but yeah, they were still ridiculously predictable.

Finally, a couple years ago, for some reason I thought what great fun it might be to get closer still.

I sat down on the edge of a trench and dangled my legs over. Only now I was too close.

I could no longer see an overview. Oh oh.

I could no longer tell what might happen next. And next. And next.

I began to hyperventilate.

The only way to enjoy the tight proximity to the characters AND find out what happened next and next and next was to be in the story itself.

So when a character raced by I yelled, “Hey!”

He stopped and looked back. His brow wrinkled. “Say, you’re not from around here, are you?”

I shook my head. “Nope. But you guys are really interesting to me. I wanna come along.”

He frowned. “But you’re not part of our group.”

“Yeah, I know. But I wanna be.”

He looked at me for a moment. “Hey, aren’t you that guy used to sit up in the tower over there and tell us what to do?”

“Uh, yeah. But see, I—”

He turned away. “Sorry. You can’t. We don’t care for control freaks.”

“But I don’t wanna control anything anymore! It’s YOUR story. I just wanna be in the story with you!”

He turned around again, eyed me. Finally he said, “Well, you can’t be in the story. It’s out story, got it? You’re living your own story out there.

“Tell you what, though, you can come along if you want. You can be our Recorder. Just keep up. Take notes. Write down what happens, what we say and do. That’s as close as we can let you get.

“You’ll be in the thick of it, only you can’t participate. A’right?”

“Deal!” I said. Then I released my grip on all things Writerly and dropped off into the story.

From then on, I’ve only been out of the trenches between stories.

Now I learn who my characters are as they reveal themselves through their actions and words (just like “real” people do) while running through the story. I describe events as they happen. Sometimes I see things coming, but most of the time I’m as surprised as the characters are.

And that tells me the readers will be surprised too.

Oh, and the plot? For that I harken back to Mr. Bradbury: “Plot is only the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story.”

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

2 thoughts on ““Building” Characters?

  1. H,
    Once again you aimed for the nailhead and flushed it to the board with a single hammer-blow! As per usual (using my own long-winded explanations) I would have said it differently, but the idea would have been the same. I agree, characters form out-of-whole-cloth as they are encountered and and ‘fleshed-out’ as they reveal themselves. In the binary writer meme of “Almighty Writer on High” and “Recorder”, I definitely fall into the “Recorder” category. And as “Recorder” in addition to ‘being with the characters’ I have even experienced the gift of a character or characters allowing me (inside them, without being ‘the’ character or directing same) to record their thoughts and actions as they think, see, and perform them. There is really nothing quite like chasing along a character’s neural pathway, following his/her synapse from axon to dendrite to thought to action.

    Maybe I should have just stopped with: IMHO, you got it right, again! (H-grin)
    rjs

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