Thursday, April 24, 2014

It's All About the Characters

This coming Saturday I (Donis) will be presenting a session on creating believable characters at a day-long writing workshop put on by our local chapter of Sisters in Crime. I've presented many a mystery-writing workshop in my time, and usually I include an element about characterization. But this particular session is all about effective characters.

It has been very interesting for me to closely examine how I create characters. Like my compatriots who wrote the two previous entries, below, I am a pantser. When I start a new novel, I have an idea in my head of how it's going to go, but thus far, it never has gone the way I planned. And the reason things never work out like I thought they would is because of those pesky characters.

They're real people and they won't necessarily do what I tell them.

That's the way it feels, anyway. That great philosopher Satchel the Dog in the Get Fuzzy comic strip said, Truth is more important than Fact. (Actually, Satchel got that from Karl Marx) A fictional character may may not be real, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t true. Creating a true character is like being a voodoo queen – or like Dr. Frankenstein toiling over his creation and yelling “Live, damn you, live.” You get to tell the human truth of an event by putting a person into a situation and letting her figure it out in her own way. It is a way of telling a story by breathing life into the bare facts and making them relevant and relatable for the reader. Barbara Kingsolver said it in a way that resonated with me: "A novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life."

Which is easily said, of course, but how to do it? I've written a series of seven novels around the same character, Alafair Tucker. By now, she is real to me. I know how she would react to any given situation and I simply follow wherever she leads. Sometimes she leads me to places I don't necessarily want to go, because it will mean that I have to scrap whatever idea I had for an outcome. But I have to do it, because she's the boss. I can't tell you, Dear Reader, how many times I've had to throw out an entire wonderfully written scene that I loved because Alafair (or Shaw or Martha or whoever) just wouldn't do that. And I'll bet money there isn't a working author out there who hasn't had the same experience.

After so many books featuring the same characters, I've just finished the first novel in what may turn out to be a new series, with all new characters, a contemporary setting, and an entirely new world-view. I didn't know my protagonist when I set out. It was like getting to know a person in real life. When I first met her I made a judgement about who she is, but as time went on, she revealed more and more about herself to me; by the way she spoke, the way she reacted to other people, the way she handled the situation she found herself in. By the time I finished the book, I liked her a lot more than I had when I started. She turned out to have a lot more depth than I had thought at first, a lot more strength. She isn't always right about people. She makes snap judgements. And she has quite a mouth on her. In other words, she is not Alafair Tucker in the least. And she isn't me, either.

Where do these people who populate our books come from? That's the mystery of it, and I have to admit I don't really have an answer.

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