Like most writers, I don’t know where characters begin. A moment in passing, a stranger on the train, a half-remembered story, a what if — characters begin as whispers and shadows, best seen peripherally. Time passes, and you do your best to show up every day, hang out for a few minutes or a few hours, and begin to tease out their stories. I don’t know of any way to do this part other than dreaming and listening and writing. I don’t think there’s a shortcut.
Once you have them on the page, though, pinned down in sentences and paragraphs, you can begin to think analytically about who you’re working with. (My students taught me the concept of a “zero draft” — such an early draft that it hardly counts, so it doesn’t matter if you make huge mistakes or go off on wild tangents or get distracted by unimportant details or subplots — and now my whole workshop has adopted the idea.)
I’ve written before about making sure characters have wants and needs, and this is where I start when I’m moving from zero to first draft. What does my character want? What is her goal? What does she desire? And what’s her big flaw, her psychic and emotional blindspot, the thing that (we hope) will improve at least slightly as she moves toward achieving her goal? How is she feeling as she gets closer to or farther from her goal? How will she deal when people challenge her or get in her way?
And once I know all that, everything else is character building.
Every character comes from somewhere, and every character has a prism of assumptions — cultural, regional, religious, political, familial, social — and emotions through which she views the world. Her assumptions shape the way she sees, how she makes her metaphors, how she speaks, how she reacts, what (and who) she admires, what she loves. Her emotions determine the things she notices and how she processes.
For instance, take two women at a small-town fair. One is in her late seventies, and she’s there because she wants to revisit the place she met her late husband. Her joints hurt, she’s a little cranky, and she grew up in a time when children were taught to be seen and not heard. The way she describes the fair will be filtered through her prism: it is loud and garish, it’s not what it used to be, it’s shabby and small where it used to be magnificent, it’s too hot, it’s vulgar, it’s lonely. Everything she describes, every interaction she has, and every emotional reaction she has reveals her character, because everything she says and notices is filtered through her unique worldview.
The other woman is fourteen, just a girl, who’s spent the summer between eighth and ninth grade selling produce at a roadside farmstand. She’s tan and strong and friendly, with enough cash in her pocket to ride every single ride. For her, the fair is full of possibility: it’s the social scene of the summer, the one time all summer that the teens of the town are all in the same place at the same time. She’s changed, and she can’t wait to see if anyone notices. To her, the hum of the crowd is intoxicating, and in it she hears all the conversations she might have, with newly-interesting boys who never noticed her before. The rides look thrilling and the lights enticing. And because she’s spent the summer hauling produce, she compares the unfamiliar colors and shapes of the fair to the familiar ones of the vegetables. The funhouse is the purplish black of a ripe Black Bell eggplant, and the sweaty tendrils of her hair stick to her face like corn silk.
Everything they notice, everything they say, the way they move and how they interact with the setting — it all reveals character.
With each draft, we have to pay close attention to these details, because often they reveal more about our characters than we know ourselves. And if done well, all these tiny details, many of which will go virtually unnoticed by readers, add up to a greater whole — a living, breathing, complicated person with a history and a future, someone who will live on in your reader’s mind long after he finishes your book.