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Conjuring Up Characters

August 30, 2012

Buckle up, folks. This post got a little long on me!

But a fellow student at How to Think Sideways had a question about how writers might understand their characters better, and as I explored my answer, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was searching for a way to explain how my characters turned from nothing more than thought experiments into the companions, conspirators, and co-pilots of my novel-writing adventures.

Is there some sorcery involving a playlist, a handful of feathers, and a thousand words written under the light of the full moon that brings them to life? 

Probably not.

However, I think a part of me believes there’s sorcery involved. I call that part the Muse, and therein lies the key. My logical, rational self insists that I can’t possibly know what it is really like to be someone else, whether it’s a man or a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. (And I will leave it to my gentle readers to speculate upon the similarities between these two species!)

Unless we develop the means to read minds, I am stuck inside this head of mine forever. One brain, one human experience, one shot at this life.

I can hear the Muse already: “Boring!!”

(And, “What? I’m going to DIE?!)

In order to tap the well of experience, whether it’s my own forgotten memories, or some kind of conduit to a common human (or, heck, sentient) experience, the logical self, limited by my own perceptions, needs to let go of what is real, and allow me to believe these constructs actually exist. For them to be real, I can’t force the story on them. They must tell me the story, and I need to suspend my disbelief, on some level, for that to happen.

All of my writing exercises are predicated on that premise. Especially in the beginning stages, characters are fragile as soap bubbles to me. If I try to look too closely I will shatter the illusion and they might start to do things that don’t make sense.

Hauling them in for questioning under an unflattering fluorescent bulb is unlikely to uncover much that is interesting. How would you react if some stranger walked up to you and asked what is missing in your life?                  

You’d probably say, “Whoa—do I know you?”

I suppose I could search through my character’s imaginary rap sheet, and look up where she was born, where she lives and what kind of grades she got in school. But I have a better idea.

After all, I’m a writer. I have wings!

In free write mode, I can watch my characters from afar. A few hundred words a day will do it. I like to do this in my morning words which comes to 750 words, but the most important thing to me is that there’s no pressure. I just let the Muse ‘tell’ me what’s going on with this person. What does she do when no one is watching? What makes this character worth writing? Who are the people she cares about?

If I’m starting with an artifact or a world I ask, “Who would be worthy of such an artifact? Who would bestow it upon him?” Or: “Who is the most interesting person in this world? Why is he important?”

I note down basic things. Is he neat and orderly? Well-dressed? Slovenly? Boisterous? Withdrawn?  Timid? Arrogant? Does she smile a lot? Is she graceful? Awkward? Forthcoming?

Whether I’m starting with my gifted but world-weary guitarist, my cynical warrior, a disenchanted dragon-builder, or the flower child’s ghost, all of them have a story to show me if I just let the Muse out of his cage to lead me to it.

After a while, when I have an idea of where the character likes to hang out, I put on my reporter hat and pay them an imaginary visit, in free writing mode again. I’ll catch up with them in the woods, in a noisy bar, a parking lot, or a coffee shop, but usually it’s somewhere ‘public’. Again, it keeps up the illusion that I’m dealing with a real person, since in real life I wouldn’t meet someone in a private place like a bedroom or their home if I hardly knew them. At least, not at first!

At this stage yes/no questions work just fine for me. Even something easy like: “Are you cold?” works. Sounds simple, right? But if I get inside someone’s head, by asking, “Why?” I can find all kinds of interesting stuff that leads up to my character’s answer.

For instance, if you were in my head today, you’d know that I shivered all day at work. But if you went deeper, you’d find more. I was cold because my boss likes to crank down the air conditioning, since he thinks it will make the employees more productive, and I don’t turn the thermostat up because the more things I ask him for the less likely it will be that I get a raise.

That’s a lot of stuff going on my head for a simple question. I’ll bet a character can give a long answer like that too.

Your character might be cold because it’s dawn and all he’s had to sleep under last night is a thin blanket. He gave the thick blanket to his little sister, in exchange for an extra potato in his soup.

Or take my marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. Absolute zero is really cold, and if only it could find a way to gather enough supernovas, it could build a cozy nebula and finally settle down and start a family!

If I let the Muse field these kinds of questions, suddenly I get all kinds of interesting answers—like what is missing in my character’s lives. Before I know it, I’m dealing with another story that cries out to be written.

How about you? Where do your characters come from? What kind of questions reveal the deepest recesses of your character’s psyche?

And, have you ever encountered a man you nearly mistook for a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being?

Related posts:

Black Hair, Grey Eyes

Character Interview: Rigel Mondryan

Not Nicholas

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16 Comments
  1. August 30, 2012 9:47 pm

    …What does she do when no one is watching? Brilliant.
    I really enjoyed reading about your method of creating.
    Thanks for a great lesson. ~Sonya

    • August 31, 2012 11:31 pm

      Hi Sonya,
      Welcome to A Scenic Route!
      I’m glad you like the post, and hope you found a new way to sneak up on your characters. 😉

  2. August 31, 2012 11:45 pm

    I’ve always enjoyed reading your blogs. You are constantly creating. Seriously, the thoughts that you share with us really ought to become books–you can add some exercises for writers who are stuck–or could use a generous dose of creativity. I know you’re a scientist, but I can see you leading writing classes and giving workshops :).

    • September 1, 2012 9:57 am

      You are making me blush! Thank you!
      The funny thing about your comment is that I didn’t write much at all until I decided that ordinary writing exercises (writing prompts, character sketches) weren’t for me, but that I was going to write books in a way that pleased me.
      Character sketches and writing prompts don’t scare me anymore!
      Perhaps my mission is to find other creatives out there who have lost their way, and show them how much fun it is to write. 🙂

      It’s good to see you back!

  3. September 1, 2012 2:44 pm

    And, have you ever encountered a man you nearly mistook for a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being?

    Yes, during my single days. LOL

    You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned suspend your disbelief. When we’re creating our characters we need to believe they can exist (no matter who or what they are) before we can convince our readers the possibility these characters do exist.

    Mine characters just appear. Poof! I rarely have trouble with their physical appearance or their names. Since it takes longer to get to know them, I ask them the questions I ask myself. What really matters to you? What would it take for you to fall in love, commit a crime, or fight in a war? Also, I find out what makes them laugh.

    Kirsten, your blog is wonderful. You always make me think harder and deeper about writing.Thanks!

    • September 1, 2012 10:21 pm

      I’m glad when I can make people think!
      I like the way your questions explore the limits of a character’s moral fiber. Amazing, that your characters just appear like that. I usually have to work at mine!
      It’s fun to see all the different ways that we writers work. We really are all as different as snowflakes, aren’t we?
      We’ll all end up with a darn good story when we’re finished though!

  4. September 2, 2012 1:13 pm

    I suppose I do a few things when I’m creating characters. Sometimes ideas appear in my head and I don’t question them because I instinctively know they’re right. Sometimes I use freewriting techniques to explore stuff. Sometimes I’ll use a discovery writing session to explore character, particularly events from that character’s past. But even after all that, I’m still not sure I understand the characters in my WIP as well as I feel like I should :/

    • September 2, 2012 11:03 pm

      Sounds like you mix it up a bit when it comes to breathing life into your characters, but that your instincts are a good gauge.
      I think if we knew every single thing about our characters they might become boring to write!

  5. September 3, 2012 1:43 am

    I love your idea of taking some time to write character sketches. I used to do this much more than I do now, and you’ve made me resolve to start it back up again.

    I ask silly, irrelevant questions to my characters all the time. 🙂

    • September 3, 2012 4:27 pm

      Hi Coral,
      It’s good to see you here!
      Most of my stories start as character sketches, or I should say, my character sketches turn into stories?
      As I got involved with revision, I didn’t write random character sketches as much, but I missed them! Now I write them just for fun, and almost always discover something I didn’t know before.

  6. September 3, 2012 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the extended version of your HTTS forum post!

    I’ve been trying your suggestion – though I started a step back with the question “What questions should I be asking?” Most importantly maybe is that when I did this without really asking the questions themselves, more questions piled on that *at some point* my MC is willing to answer – if I work my way to it in a friendly and absolutely trustworthy way.

    Thanks for counteracting this, “Unless we develop the means to read minds, I am stuck inside this head of mine forever. One brain, one human experience, one shot at this life,” with this: ” the logical self, limited by my own perceptions, needs to let go of what is real, and allow me to believe these constructs actually exist. For them to be real, I can’t force the story on them. They must tell me the story, and I need to suspend my disbelief, on some level, for that to happen.”

    My main difficulty is often that my character may have a problem that needs a solution different from what I would naturally incline toward – and being stuck in my own experience and doubting my ability to create a believable alternate, I get stuck with my characters responding to things as though they are me. BORING! Honestly, I’m boring enough, I don’t need to replicate it!

    Daily I have a haze of doubt that I’m capable of doing this over my eyes and so it’s helpful to have small steps and techniques to clear the field of vision.

    • September 3, 2012 4:37 pm

      Interesting!
      Because, in a way, I feel that my characters remain an extension of myself– the good guys are a better version of what I might have been, the bad guys are me making bad choices. I don’t know if I can get away from that, because my own experience is still all I have to go on. I try to build on that, taking the finite (me) and reflecting the infinite (my stories.)

      ‘Daily I have a haze of doubt that I’m capable of doing this over my eyes ‘
      Yeah, me too. Setting words upon the screen never ceases to be a leap of faith. Sharing my revelations about the process is a way to reinforce that I have made some progress though.

      Thanks for posing the thought provoking question that led to this post!

  7. T.F.Walsh permalink
    September 3, 2012 7:37 pm

    Another great post.. I always do character sketches which always include photos and anything that helps me identify with their personality:)

    • September 4, 2012 11:57 pm

      Photos and artwork are great, although what usually ends up happening is that I see a picture and I think, “Oh, that’s so and so, from …” and then put it in the appropriate story folder. If I go hunting for a character’s image it invariably eludes me.

      And thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  8. September 24, 2012 2:15 pm

    I am a big believer in write what you know, so the characters in Grove started as fictionalized versions of people I know/knew. As I wrote, they really developed into their own people…both better and worse than those who inspired them. Now that I know them better as their own “people”, I am changing things to reflect that in my revisions. “The Knight and the Key” was inspired by a painting, so it was a matter of looking at the figures and projecting personalities and lives onto them. The one character I created from whole cloth, Aristide, began as the answer to the question “What kind of person would rock Glesig’s world hardest?”..

    I spend a lot of time observing people, going weird places and meeting new people, starting conversations on buses and in line, asking inappropriately personal questions and listening very hard to the answers. All of those experiences inform the characters I create.

    • September 24, 2012 9:42 pm

      That’s very cool, and your characters really do leap off the page!
      I don’t think I directly link my fictional people to real people in my life, although I’m certain they are an amalgamation of people that I’ve met in the past.

      And I adored Aristide. 🙂

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