Another gem mined from the notes on my “Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale” Facebook page!
The Making Of…: “Write a Novel – it Builds Character”
Some writers put Story above all else. The main aim of others is to get a message across. But while I would certainly consider a good story necessary, and an important, masterfully-conveyed message a great bonus, the number one focus in my writing has ever been the characters.
I love fictional characters – the good ones, anyway. And by “good”, I do not necessarily mean that they are noble and pure of heart; I’m all for a great villain or antihero, too. One can have bad a “combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another” and still be an awesome “person portrayed in an artistic piece, such as a drama or novel”.
The main thing they need to have is realness.
I am not necessarily recommending that the characters become quite as real to the readers as they are to their authors. Mild schizophrenia is not for everyone. Please speak to your doctor before hanging around an imaginary Sherwood with your immaterial buddies. That having been said, a writer has to create something – and someones – that readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief for, or else all you’ve got is a dry summary of a tale full of stick figures standing in for actual people.
A good story is all about the people. After all, the story is theirs; we’re just reading it. …Or, in some cases, writing it.
So, where do I get my characters? Is it as simple as throwing together a name, hair and eye colors, and “one thing you should know about me…” and saying “ta-da”?
No, thank goodness. That would seriously take a lot of the fun out of my vocation.
I happen to enjoy taking a little time over the discovery of my protagonists, supporting cast, and random extras who may or may not land a bigger role someday if their planets align. Cool as it would be to have a mysterious stranger walk up to me in a dream and tell me, “Hey, this is me, this is my story: Write it up”, I think that would leave me feeling less like an author and more like a secretary taking dictation. Not exactly what I was going for, here.
I can approach character creation from several different ways.
In one instance, I was struck with a word that demanded to be a name, and I let that name sit in my “to be utilized in its due time” file until an unrelated inspiration collided with the first, and my talking fox was born. (Disclaimer: This character is from a project separate from “Ballad”. There are no talking foxes in this particular novel. Sorry if I got anybody’s hopes up.)
Much more often, I’ll have a vague idea for a story, determine the roles that need filling, and set to work tackling the vacancies, one by one. I’ll muse over different physical appearance combos, pore over baby name books and websites and wait for something to strike a chord, add a pinch of this attribute from me, and a dash of this attribute from some anonymous guy I can’t stand, and a feature reminiscent of insert-name-of-movie-character here, only cooler because… You get the gist.
I figure out what I’ll need the characters to do or feel (based on the bare bones of the story I’ll have plotted up to that point, or the dynamic I hope to achieve within various relationships), and I’ll look at the character and his/her environment and try to understand where the actions and attitudes are coming from. Truthfully, I don’t always know all the answers. Correction: I never know all the answers. I can get to know a character as well as I know my own self, and that will still leave a lot of holes in their psychological makeup. I guess that’s a good thing; if I understood them completely, how real could they really be?
I had a bit of a head start when putting together the cast of “Ballad”. Countless storytellers before me had unintentionally hooked me up with ready-to-go names: Robin Hood, Arthur Pendragon, etc. All I had to do was decide on my personal spelling preferences for people like Allyn-a-Dale and Morganne le Fey, and I was ready to fly ahead to the next step.
Uncovering the personalities of my main characters, the Merry Men, was my favorite part. I had only the haziest of preconceived notions, going in. As you’ll recall, I was on a crazy deadline (NaNoWriMo, y’all); for all of my compulsive planning, my actors were basically stuck doing improv. Fortunately, improvisation turned out to be one of my Will Scarlet’s greatest strengths, so he proved invaluable to me. (You want to crank out maximum word-count in minimum time? Partner with Will. Your back will be had.) Robin stepped up when I was looking for an authoritative voice of reason; Marion provided me with an extra dose of humanization; Little John was acting as a straight man one minute and zinging his comrades in brilliant deadpan the next; Gant-o’-the-Lute showed up out of the blue to steal all those scenes in which I’d never intended to include him (which, as many could attest, is just Lute all over)…
And then there was Allyn. The poor boy had a lot of live up to. When your name’s in the novel’s title like that, you kind of have to deliver, and frankly, I wasn’t sure if he could. That had more to do with doubt in myself than in him; I’ve had a rough time, in the past, imbuing my leading men and ladies with the depth or pizzazz displayed by their costars. I worried that I’d accidentally turn a wuss loose in the spotlight. (Every author’s worst nightmare! That, and the one where you meant to hit “save”, but it turned out to be that other button that erases half your work. Horror…)
But my fears were for naught. Artistically sensitive and traumatized by his sadistic author’s plot choices though he was, Allyn let me know from Chapter One that he intended to make something of himself. (To which I said, “You go, boy.”) Together, with all the delicacy of archeologists at some big-deal dig, we uncovered bit by bit what my newest minstrel was made of. (Some of our findings actually came after the book was over, so I totally had to write a sequel.) By the time the novel ended – and for several chapters before that, really – I didn’t just have cardboard cutout people standing around to prop up my fabulous story idea: I had characters!
And that, my friends, is pretty much why I do what I do.
What about you, fellow writers and readers? How do you like your character discovery?