Sunday, June 1, 2014

30-Week Writing Survey: Week 9: Character Ideas



Today's question: How do you get ideas for your characters? Describe the process of creating them.

I seriously don't even know what to say when people ask me that (about my characters or my plots or my ideas, whatever). I think probably most writers have a more concrete answer than I do for this, but I honestly feel like characters "come from" the same places dreams do for me, and they're just about as deliberate. (Which is to say not really at all.) You don't ask people how they manage to dream about the things they do. That's just kind of what their minds do when they sleep.

I "find" them. Like digging in a big sandbox and unearthing them, and unearthing all the things around them if I pay enough attention to where I found them in the sandbox.
Sometimes there's a situation I think of for whatever reason and a "person" at the core of it all takes shape. I can find out more about the situation by going there and letting them talk.

Every character I create has a life before page 1. (Unless they were born on said page.) Sometimes a character's past won't be all that well-known to me--certainly not the details, if I've just started writing--and I "find out" what might have happened to a person or influenced a person or contributed to who a person is if I pay enough attention to their thoughts as I write about them flicking through their moods and reactions. It's more like discovering transplanted memories than it is "making them up."

Thing is, this sort of thing sounds pathological to people who don't write. I think to a point non-writers can imagine figuring out the details as you go along, but there's something about "discovering" rather than "creating" PEOPLE that has to be done right if you want to have a realistic, authentic, believable character.

For Bad Fairy:

Delia was originally derivative; admittedly the idea of her came from the Sleeping Beauty story, where she was the villain. She's so, so much more than that in the story, and the whole Sleeping Beauty nonsense is such a tiny part of her life story. I went back to the beginning of her life, knowing that part of her difficulties stemmed from being a half-fairy raised by fairies and also quite a prodigy at the magickal arts, and everything just kind of came together from there. Her tastes and thoughts and motivations are very different from mine (and when I am reading about her without trying to "be" her, she's a little bit overwhelming and very dark for a character *I* made up).

For Finding Mulligan:

Those of you who have read Finding Mulligan may find this hard to believe, but I had no idea who Mulligan would turn out to be when I started writing it. My character, Cassie, spends most of the book desperately trying to figure that out, and I think most authors who write deliberate mysteries know the answer and scatter the clues, but . . . I really was just as clueless as she was. Cassie fell in love with a painting on her door. Her alternate self fell in love with a guy who looked like the painting on her door, in a fantasy dreamland of course. The conclusion that developed seemed to come naturally when I saw all the little cracks in the story--how certain things just didn't add up. Her figuring that out became one of the coolest stories I've ever written.

For Stupid Questions:

The central character of this story is Summer, an introvert who's thrust into the spotlight because she decided to tell the media about her superpowers and got way more than she'd bargained for. But the protagonist isn't Summer; it's Nick, who falls in love with her. And Nick wasn't much to start with besides an observer. In one of my older stories, a character has superpowers that are similar to Summer's, and though Summer is a much meeker, more insecure person, I already knew many of the ins and outs of writing a character with her issues, and decided to do so from outside her perspective. Nick was basically born to observe, and appeared in the story as the guy running the camera for the news story on her, but his observation skills became part of the core of who he is and a huge part of what he struggles with in the story. (He's a bit too observant sometimes and it creeps people out.) He had thoughts and needs of his own--an interest in Summer, a desire to get past the baggage from previous relationships, a need to figure himself out, a struggle to negotiate a long-distance relationship--but he did begin as a reference point for spotlighting Summer and became way more on his own.

For Joint Custody (my unfinished upper MG):

Bay is an introspective kid whose world was never the same once his parents split up and got joint custody of him. He thinks a little "too" deeply about everything--very much an overthinker and has become a little bit of a worrywart. He thinks about peer pressure and family and friendship and, ya know, homework and his dog. But also about animal cruelty, his mental autobiography which he secretly tells to a stuffed animal, and whether adults are actually infallible. I don't actually know quite where his story is going. I know what his problem is. I just don't know if there's a book in there. Seems to me that when I finish a book, somehow there magically was a story inside that person.

Anyway, in summary, when I write about characters it's more like I feel like I met them rather than made them up, and of course as a writer the interesting thing is that meeting these people also involves becoming them for a time. I'm not trying to make writing sound mystical or ineffable; I AM expressing, however, that anyone I choose to write about tells me loud and clear how they feel and what they want, and THEY decide what to do. I think it's all about being inside the character's mind and knowing the how and the why of their thoughts (not just the what). Directing them from outside is puppetry. If you do it from inside, there's no "directing" necessary at all.

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