It’s All About Character

Over the past week or so here at the Guild, we have been writing about lines and scenes from our own novels and from our favourites from other authors that have stuck with us. It occurred to me that there is one constant amongst all these witty lines of dialogue, wonderful descriptions, and involving scenes: someone said, perceived, or lived them. A memorable character.

In my post, I talked about how I often don’t remember specific lines from novels, but I do remember the scenes and the feelings they left me with. Often, those scenes involve characters the author has made me care about deeply. In Susan Cooper’s Dawn of Fear, it’s not the way she described the rubble caused by the bomb that brought a tear to my eye, it was the loss of a friend, and the way her character reacted. Characters like the Tin Man, Hermione Granger, Ebenezer Scrooge and Gandalf the Grey become such a part of our culture, and a part of us, that I don’t even have to name what books they came from or who the authors were.

But where do these characters come from? How does an author develop them?

I can only answer that question from my own point of view, one with which you might be disappointed, because it’s neither magic nor hard work.

I write them into existence.

Oh, I’ve tried filling out long, detailed character descriptions like I was adding them to the census. I’ve pondered their political views, wondered what their best friend’s neighbour’s dog’s name was, which Zimbabwean lacrosse team was their favourite, and how often they choose Sanka over Nescafe, but the results have always felt forced. Instead of beginning with a portrait, I start out with a sketch and fill in the details as I go.

I like the character to tell me about him or herself.

For instance, when I began writing On Unfaithful Wings, I knew the details about Icarus that I needed to know: divorced, strained relationship with his son, raised by the church, etc. I didn’t know he’d be a wealth of 70s and 80s pop culture trivia until I started writing and he got his voice. I still don’t know what he did for a living when he died, though I have my suspicions; I figure when the time is right, he’ll tell me. The same goes for his guardian angel, Poe. In the first book, I knew something had gone on in her past, something bad, but she was very secretive about it, embarrassed to tell me. It wasn’t until I wrote All Who Wander Are Lost that she told me, and then I understood why she’d been hesitant, but I also know there’s more to the story that she’s holding back. One of these days, she’ll let me in on the rest of her secrets.

The same is true for my upcoming epic fantasy, Blood of the King. I knew the necessities about my protagonist, Khirro: a farmer who didn’t want to leave home to be a soldier (sorry for the trope, but let’s face it, in that kind of culture, most people were farmers), disliked by his parents, on rocky ground with his girl. I didn’t find out that his father had lost his arm in an accident he blamed Khirro for until I wrote the second draft. The story of the Mourning Sword didn’t come to light until Athryn sat down on the log beside Khirro and told him the story of Monos the Necromancer, and inadvertently, the background of Darestat. I knew the rules before I started (there can be only one Necromancer; that magic steals energy from somewhere else to power it), but I had no idea that the Shaman and the Necromancer were so closely linked until the end of the book.

Let’s be clear on a few things:

1. I’m not suggesting that this is the way all authors develop their characters; it’s just what I do.

2. I’m not suggesting that this is the right way to develop characters; it’s just what I do.

3. All those things I don’t know about my characters, I will find out. I’m the curious type, so I’ll dig out of Icarus what he did for a living before he died, I’ll find out Poe’s secrets, and I’ll discover what Khirro did to cause the accident that cost his father his arm.

So let me ask you this…if you are a writer: how do you develop your characters? As a reader, what makes a character memorable? Who are your favourites?

If you want to find out more about Icarus and Poe, you can find the two Icarus Fell novels on Amazon. To learn about Khirro, you’ll have to wait until the end of the month for the release of Blood of the King (Khirro’s Journey Book 1).

See you then!

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2 comments on “It’s All About Character

  1. I fill out one of those long detailed charts (census form – I like that!). I don’t fill out everything. I have a conversation with the character in my head. “Married?” “Hell no, what are you, crazy?” One will answer. If I don’t get an answer or a question doesnt’ feel relevant, I skip it. I have one character sheet that is half filled with “See above.” “Duh.” “What do you think?” Brit is not a big communicator, but I got a great feel for his personality by going through that thing with him. In the process he also told me about his rivalry with the cook, his childhood and why he ‘hates’ cats (he doesn’t, he just wants everyone to think he does)

    I guess, thinking about it, I need to already have the character in my head, but the chart lets me get a conscious grip on who the character is and what his/her voice is like.

  2. People ask me how I develop my characters and I honestly could never write them up based on a carefully developed, multi-layered bio like I’ve seen some people do. My characters feel alive to me. I know them, the way you might know a friend or a family member, and they show up that way at the beginning of a story, springing from my head fully formed. I like to call it my “Athena Effect”. It sounds like you have a similar process. They already have their own background story, their own dreams and desires, strengths and weaknesses, and their own personality and if they do anything out of character in the story, there is always a very good explanation for it. Just like regular people, they change as the story progresses, reacting to their new experiences, growing in some cases, breaking down in others. I know this is not the normal way to go, but as you say, it is what works for me.

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