One of the commenters asked about making characters come to life, how to make them more than helpful constructions who hit your plot points.
Objectively I should be the last person in the world to explain how to do that, because, well, for the first … eight novels I wrote, I didn’t know there was any other way to start than with “the character is here and wants me to tell his story.” Characters came, and still come, to me fully formed. I don’t sit around thinking “what are his strengths and weaknesses? Why does he do that weird thing with his napkin?
No, I don’t know every detail about the character when he first shows up. Usually to be honest all I know about the character is that he or she is in pain and motivated to do something to end the pain. Sometimes the pain is emotional, sometimes physical. And sometimes the pain might not be obvious on first meeting them. And some characters, their pain might even evade the reader altogether – say Dyce Dare in the refinishing mysteries – but what seems to first attract me to the character is their pain. I’ll see in which way they’re broken.
Of course, when I was young and stupid, I didn’t know the difference between pain that leads a character to move and fight and pain that results in the character just wanting to die, and not in a blaze of glory. This resulted in two painful novels where the character just moaned about how unfortunate he was.
(I didn’t know at the time that if I’d just used slightly higher vocabulary and not made it heroic fantasy I could SO totally have got all sorts of literary prizes. Maybe that’s a good thing. It would have corrupted me and I’d never have learned to write properly.)
Anyway, those were the eight first novels, a couple now published, but mostly written only when the character imposed on my psyche with enough force to make me write. I mean, it’s not like someone was paying me for it.
And then I sold a book on proposal. I won’t say that no characters ever came to life in the Shakespeare trilogy. Quicksilver eventually acquired a life of his/her own, and the others too eventually came lurching to reluctant life.
BUT not to start with. To start with they were concepts on the page. I needed Shakespeare. I needed a gender changing elf who is both the fair youth and the dark lady. I needed a wicked king, etc.
They were in fact constructs that would do what I wanted them to. So… how did they come to life? Well… I had to think about it. “This is the character, and I need him to behave this and this and that way.” And then I tried to visualize the person who would do that.
At this stage, I know because I lurk when other writers discuss their process, many people will “interview” their characters. I have no objection to doing that, except that it’s like research. It’s easy to get lost in it, and it unleashes a flood of information that might or might not be relevant to the story. Also, if the character comes alive in the middle of the interview, it becomes way too tempting to sit there and continue it, because then it’s fun.
But it is possible to do a logical back reasoning from ‘he needs to be unfeeling’ to the toughness that was required for him to survive his childhood, say. And somewhere there, in the middle of writing the book, you’ll hit something – a flash of childhood memory, something like that – and suddenly the character comes to life.
Actually, even me, starting from the character out, I often find I’m “held out” of the character till I write something that suddenly lets me see into them. See, even when you get your characters for free, getting to know them is like getting to know your friends. You need to rub together a little and see them in all sorts of situations. And no character or person in his right mind comes up to a total stranger and says “hi there, I’m a right bastard because my mom beat me with a wooden spoon when I was three, until the spoon broke.” NO ONE TALKS LIKE THAT. But if you’re writing the story, you’ll suddenly get it. And also that the mother beat him because he was playing in a place where the enemy could see him and thus discover the hideout of the remaining refugees of the half-killed race. And she was afraid for her, for him, and for all their relatives. And eventually he GOT that, so he can’t even resent her. And now his being a right bastard makes sense, and he’s alive to you, just as a friend would be.
There’s another method some authors use which I didn’t even know about until I tried to collaborate with an established writer and he told me “Who is this character based on? Do I know him?” And then I found out this author writes everyone based on friends, acquaintances or public figures. This is how he makes them come alive. They come alive because he knows them. He just slots the right person to the right goal, much like interviewing actors, I imagine.
I can’t FATHOM working like that. I do have the occasional tuckerization, but it’s not like that, and it’s usually a secondary character into whose head I don’t get.
But it clearly works for him, since he’s a bestseller. You might need to work that way.
There are ways to jog a recalcitrant character, too, one that is almost there but “hiding” – going to the sort of place the character might hang out in and soaking up the atmosphere, for instance, or looking through magazines (hairstyling mags are good for this) until you see a face that you go “That’s him!” Or “That’s what she looks like!” Or even finding the right name by looking through baby name books. Or trying to picture the character’s daily routine.
Something will catch fire, and the character lives.
What if it never happens? What if you write the book and you still think the character is a construct?
Don’t despair. First, it happens to all of us – particularly in the old model of publishing which forced us to write from proposal and on demand. Do enough books and eventually you’ll hit that point, eventually. One character or another just won’t live for you.
And you know what? It’s okay. Just like with writing when you’re inspired and writing when you’re not, it doesn’t seem to mater, if you know enough craft. Know enough craft and you can fake it. The character will still not live for you – but he/she will live for the reader. Trust me.
Sometimes when reading the book later – this just happened with one of my “rejects” then the character comes alive for YOU as a reader. So it is there. You just, for some reason can’t see it, at that time.
And that’s the ultimate ingredient for the character to come to life.
Look, whether you make up your characters wholesale, like Pygmalion sculpting Galatea, or you assemble them from spare pieces of your friends, like Frankenstein, in the end you need an extra touch to make it all come to life.
For Pygmalion that was the touch of the goddess. For us writers, it is the reader. If the character moves, breathes and becomes real in the reader’s mind – if the reader can think about him/her only as a friend, someone real, then we’ve done our job, no matter how we did it.
We’ve stolen the fire of the gods yet again.