Hello, readers! Once more, it is my turn to contribute to the terrific Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain. This month, we get into the nitty-gritty parts of writing, those elements that regularly induce psychotic meltdowns and reduce even the hardiest writer to screaming at his or her keyboard in a fit of unbridled literary rage.
This month’s prompt was, and I quote, “How do you develop and relate to your characters?” Let us begin.
I generally assume when writing posts that you have at one time or another attempted to write a novel. Therefore, you’ve had some dealing with characters and how…complex they can be.
I’ve had my fair share of character encounters, but I’ve never really thought about how I develop them until now. So, let’s delve into the word-filled land that is my writerly brain, shall we?
Let’s use an example for this. We’ll call him Ryan, and for the sake of context let’s say he lives in a spaceship on its way to colonizing an alien planet (did you really expect me to make a realistic example?). Now, I have some say in the basic personalities of my characters, but beyond that they like to surprise me by taking control- that is, it’s extremely hard for me to simply do whatever I want with them. A lot of things I try will just not work. Instead, it’s up to me to figure out what they want to do and to make sure their roles and actions within the plot fit their personalities, not the other way around.
So how do I get to know Ryan? Well, I’ve found that a good way to test a character’s…um…character is through reactions. How does Ryan react to other people on the ship? How do the other colonists react to him? How do I want my readers to see him? If Ryan accidentally locks himself out of the ship with only ten minutes of air in his helmet, will he freak out? Call for help? Or find a way to get inside without any assistance? It helps if I try to put myself in Ryan’s shoes and see through his eyes, as it were.
I think having a good background for a character also goes a long way towards deciding why they act the way they do. For example, Ryan might have been raised on the spaceship. He knows his way around everything. Therefore, he wouldn’t be the type to freak out and he would calmly open the air lock using the external switch.
I used to think it was strange when an author said they felt like they had no control over their characters, but now I completely understand. When something feels awkward in my writing, most of the time it’s because I misrepresented a character somewhere along the way.
I can’t try to force Ryan to suddenly become a different person or make a decision that he wouldn’t normally make. Once his character is set, there’s no going back, and more often I’ll change the plot sooner than I’ll change the characters. It’s more work if I have to perform my own version of Extreme Makeover. I speak from experience. I’ve scrapped entire plots because early on I made an assumption about a character that turned out to be wrong. It simply could not be fixed.
My advice is this: please, PLEASE, for the love of ALL THAT IS BOOK NERD, don’t go against what your characters want!
As for physical traits, I have a lot more control- at least for basic things (hair color, skin tone, etc). Sometimes background information helps with this, and sometimes not. The physical traits that can be changed, like hair style and clothing, are determined by personality.
On to names. Names are tricky, and for this type of thing I absolutely love websites like this one when I need a little inspiration. I’ve posted before about the importance of picking a good name for your character. Essentially, if one decides that a character is going to have a name that means something, that name should completely fit the character. That includes not only the meaning of the name but also, if it works with the story, the region or language from which it originates. Again, background comes in handy.
And that’s basically it. I love all my characters because they’re all unique and they all have a different story. I don’t believe in there just being one story (the protagonist’s) for every book or series. Every character has something to contribute and a different tale to tell. It’s how you learn to use your characters in the most efficient way possible, how you combine all of the intersecting threads that make up their storylines to create the best one, that counts. When I learn to do that, I’ll have made it as a writer.