Usually I’ll find the inspiration for a story in a single relationship that intrigues me. Maybe it’s two brothers who have spent their whole lives trying to one up the other. Maybe it’s a pair of recent divorcees who discover love at a mutual friend’s wedding. Maybe it’s a father who hasn’t seen his daughter in thirty years and arrives on her doorstep with the police on his trail.
See what I mean? Relationships. No, not even relationships. More like moments. But the seed of the overriding conflict is there and I know it will eventually grow and flower. But just as my plots tend to grow and flower through subsequent drafts, so do my characters. If I have ever started a novel with a fixed character in my mind, I can guarantee you that character changes—dramatically.
So what does it mean to me to build a character? Am I talking about that character’s physical look, her emotional core, her history? I’m really talking about all of it. As we know, it’s a package.
Now that said, I can’t tell you how many times I used to put the cart before the horse. In other words, how many times I would build the body before I’d built the soul. I would have a look in mind for my character. I would get attached to that look.
Now I know a lot of writers don’t like to be too specific with their descriptions of their characters (though I know some do) just as some readers like the look of their character to be spelled out to the smallest detail (I’m looking at you, attached earlobes!) and some readers prefer to draw their own picture of a character. But in my experience, I can’t know how my character will look until I know how they feel. Does that make sense?
Since I’m married to a biologist, an anatomical analogy comes to mind: You start have to start with the bones. You have a skeleton which is a rough idea of your character’s wants and needs, fears and loves. Then you fill those cavities with organs and you figure out what sort of heart she has, what sort of brain. Is she frenetic or sloth-like? Does she play the piano, in which case she probably has long fingers—or maybe she plays the piano but she has short fingers which emphasizes her determination to get what she wants no matter any physical limitations. You see where I’m going with this…
Then, only after you’ve worked all this out, can you finally, truly put skin on your character. It’s essentially working from the inside out. No guts, no glory.
For me, the building of that person, that character takes many, many drafts. Sometimes I won’t even attach any bodily characteristics to a character for several scenes, because too often nothing clicks. I may love the idea of a man with frothy black hair, but so what? Maybe my character doesn’t have any business having frothy black hair? And assigning him frothy black hair before I’ve assigned him a soul or a purpose would be limiting. Why not let him reveal himself to me—instead of putting him in a frothy-haired box from page one.
Oh, and there’s one last thing: When you’re done and that character is a walking, talking, feeling hot mess of a human being (my favorite kind!), then after all that—if you’re me anyway—you decide that his or her name is all wrong. Oh, go ahead. Change it. I’ve changed character names many, many times over the course of a novel’s many drafts. Why? Because the character has changed and the name no longer suits them. (Clearly, this is not how it works when naming babies. We don’t get to wait until their personalities are clear and then decide ten years later, “Well, obviously she’s a Mildred!”)
Has anyone else ever done this? (Rename their character, not their baby.)
Anyone else think I’m verging on hot mess myself for suggesting this whole cart before the horse when it comes to building characters thing?
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