I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I discovered how thin my characters were as I started to build them out. I have always thought that those character building sheets — you know the ones that make you think about your character’s eye color, or their birthday, or their favorite childhood memory — were not really useful. As I ;listened to publishing writers extol their virtues, I sat there without a completed manuscript thinking it would be a waste of time. While I read chapters in craft books written by successful authors, talking about the importance of knowing your character, I shook my head, looked at my unfinished story files and thought it wasn’t for me.
I am almost giddy to admit I was not just wrong, but willfully wrong, because I think not knowing my characters was the reason I’d always stopped writing those stories. I was asking my characters to tell me what to do and, well, sometimes they got stubborn. And when they got stubborn, I quit. I quit because I didn’t have something to draw on, a catalog of experience to fuel future actions. I was creating my character at the same I was making them take action, and when the action became more serious, they faltered and I got bored.
But they didn’t falter. While its possible to create a character side-by-side with their circumstances, that doesn’t give you time for a lot of depth, and that’s where the trouble happens (at least for me). I’ve nothing to draw on and I’m constantly asking my character to make things up as they go along. That’s actually my job, not theirs. Their job is to give the illusion they’ve existed before stepping onto page one.
And the biggest issue is that there is no growth. There character never has that initial moment of stasis where they are a full person. They may be naive, young, complacent, bored, annoyed, captured, evil, lost in that opening moment, but they should still be a fully formed person on page one. Then the growth begins. Shadows don’t have arcs, characters do.
Only when I went back to answer questions about what motivated my characters, what they wanted and what they’d do to get it, only then did I feel like I could tell their story. And, I’m afraid, that story may have changed.
People, real or not, will always surprise you.