Thursday, August 28, 2014

Realistic Characters: Created by Design or Inspiration?

Whether in plot- or character-driven fiction--and I am becoming less and less convinced there is a definitive distinction between the two--character design is central to maintaining an audience's interest in our storytelling.  How characters act and react to the obstacles strewn in their path demonstrates who they are (or who they are becoming).  A character who acts in a manner inconsistent with his or her personality quickly becomes a slave to whatever urges the author has.  I've read enough fanfic to know that playing God with your characters, allowing them to behave inconsistently, almost inevitably leads to boring storytelling.

So how do we create consistent characters?

We don't.

They have to come to us.

Gemina Soul
Gemina Soul, used with permission by kattattak.

As a reader, I don't have to like who a character is or what a character does.  I just have to be able to understand why they do what they do.  That understanding allows me to give the author the benefit of the doubt, to trust that they truly understand their stories, and to simply get lost in the storytelling.  If characters make no sense to me, if I can't understand their flaws, then I cannot give myself up to the power of their stories.

Falling in love with a character in someone else's work is not so different from becoming enamored with our own.  I've written recently about meeting one of my protagonists.  Purple prose aside, inspiration struck me in a moment when I most needed it to appear.  Alisandra was already there, fully formed from the ether, or from my own mind, or from a crack in time and space between our two worlds.  However she came to me, I cannot claim to have created her.

But for her story, I escape neither responsibility nor blame.  In the end I will lay claim to having told her story as beautifully and accurately as I was able.  But the work has not been in the inspiration: it has been in the craft.

Darcy Pattison wrote an excellent little blog post on keeping characters consistent. Of her methods, one of my favorite exercises for discovering characters involves a full immersion of myself into their world.  What does life look like on a daily basis?  How have the edges of that life, sharp or silken, carved the characters' personalities?  What things have these story people seen or done that have contributed to the people they are becoming?

Character interviews are another excellent tool for getting to know your characters.  I particularly love the long outline in chapter seven of K.M. Weiland's Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.  It gives a novelist a very in-depth idea of the kinds of things you should know about your character when writing them into a piece of fiction, and particularly into one the length of a novel.

I've also found altering my usual POV to be another excellent method of getting inside the minds of my characters--particularly if they are antagonists or minor players in the main story.  I just slip into a first-person mindset and let their words run wild.  I am always surprised at what they tell me about their own experiences.  Even those characters I hate most have a right to have their stories heard; I don't have to ever repeat them to find them valuable.

These methods are indispensable to us as writers, because they help bring our characters to life in our own minds.  I am wholeheartedly convinced that the real work is not in "coming up" with a character.  It's in understanding the characters we've already met. We will never understand our characters' motivations, their actions and reactions, if we do not understand them as people first.  What does that scar over her left eye mean?  Why does he always flinch when he hears the sound of running water?  Why does she smirk when she gets angry?

In the end, designing a character for me is never about designing her to behave in subservience to my desired plot.  It is always about getting to know her, meeting her at her level, and discovering who she is, was, and may yet be.  If she trusts me to listen, to understand her story even if I don't agree with it, then she will trust me to tell it to others the best way I know how.  My job is not to create.  It's to take what's already there, a secret known to me alone, and to give it manifestation in the here and now, so that others can meet the characters that have entrusted me with their stories.  

Crafting stories is both a buoying joy and a heavy responsibility.  We have a sacred obligation to our characters to tell their stories the best way we can, and until we can embrace them, understand them as old friends, their stories will be little more than collections of pretty phrases without meaning.

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