I’ve had a couple of interviews in the last couple of weeks in which I was asked a question that completely threw me for a loop. The same question. “How do you create character?”
Now, you’d think that would be the easiest thing in the world for a writer to answer, right? As essential skills go, that’s about as basic as it gets. But being asked the question makes me realize I don’t think about it, I just do it.
Surely I have techniques that I’ve just internalized to the point that I am having trouble breaking them down. So as soon as I get THE PRICE in (Tuesday, and yes I am completely psychotic, thanks!) I will put some serious thought into what those actual techniques are, since people are apparently going to be asking from now on.
But this is my theory for the day. I think all writers are always collecting characters as we go along. Not just characters of course, but bits and pieces of story. An interesting dynamic between people. A theme. A great character back story. A cool occupation. The look of someone’s eyes. A burning ambition. Hundreds of thousands of bits of flotsam and jetsam that we stick in the back of our minds like the shelves full of buttons and ribbons and fabrics and threads and beads in a costumer’s shop. Or like the prop warehouse that was in the vast basement under the theater at Berkeley – cages and cages and cages of (somewhat) categorized props – medieval, Renaissance, Greek, sci fi, fantasy.
To completely shift metaphors, I could also say that we take clippings of people, like you take clippings of plants, and grow them in a vast mental greenhouse until they’re fully formed or at least formed enough to plant somewhere where they will take root on their own.
The truth is I rarely start a story from a character – it’s usually more a situation, although the situation will usually dictate quite a bit about the characters involved. If I want to write a story about a haunting in an old Victorian college dorm, that dictates that the main characters are going to be college kids. College kids have to have majors and it’s more interesting to have contrasting characters so assigning contrasting majors is going to further define character. I think books without sex are pretty much useless (at least to me) so that means at least some of these characters are going to be what I consider sexy, and my odd and eclectic personal tastes in all that is going to give at least some of these people an edge. Also my personal theories about how a haunting happens is going to have a huge influence on the psychology of these characters, and so on, and so on. So, yes, I can sort of fake an explanation about how I build characters from scratch.
But I think what happens more often than not is that at a certain point in outlining a plot, some of these characters I have growing or cooking back there in the costume shop or green house or prop warehouse or whatever you want to call it just step forth and take their place in the situation. Not only that (to confuse the metaphors all to hell), I think I have some actual ACTORS back there in my mental wings who are able to play different parts. There are certain characters who keep showing up in my writing, maybe heavily disguised and people don’t even necessarily recognize that they’re the same character, but I know it’s the same entity. Actors.
So yes, there are techniques you can use – give a character a burning desire (in the story AND in each scene) and a terrible secret, give them an arc, give them good scenes to play, give them dialogue tics, use shadow forms of mental disorders to define them, use Greek and other archetypes to define them…
But the real secret for me is – always be collecting. Like those feral kids I was rambling on about last Saturday. You have to invite those potential characters in and let them live and grow inside your head. Yes, it gets pretty crowded in there after a while… but it’s all worth it when that perfect character for a scene or the perfect villain or protagonist just walks out onto the page, fully formed.
And now I’m almost afraid to ask, but – is that just me? What do YOU do?
(I will be at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Houston this week, doing signings, panels, and a performance of Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater. Then in an act of sheer lunacy even for me, I’ll be flying back to LA Saturday night to do the LA Times Festival of Books on Sunday, signing at the Mysterious Galaxy booth at noon, Sisters in Crime from 1-3 pm, and the Mystery Bookstore at 3 pm – and possibly back to Sisters in Crime at 4 pm. Hope to see some of you there!)