Weekly Musing: Quite a Character

Something any writer must be able to do is have the ability to create characters. Or at least have good enough hearing to pay attention to when a character pops into your head with a story to tell. Character creation is one thing I’m not sure a lot of readers realize can come from anywhere. Some are created from scratch by the author while others come to the author. A big reason why it’s never a good idea to think a story is a reflection of the author as a person unless noted otherwise.

For me, it seems most of my characters just come to me. I even hesitate using the phrase “my characters” as I don’t think I own these characters. Even though they live in a fictional world, they are still real to some degree. What I mean by characters come to me is either I’ll be trying to sleep or reading, watching TV, or doing something else when a complete stranger pops into my head to say hello. If I’m lucky then maybe they bring me a gift, or curse, depends on the situation, of a story they’d like to have told.

Most of the time I’m not so lucky. The stranger just presents himself or herself to me and it’s up to me to figure out what to do with them. When it’s up to me to figure out what a character wants, it takes a lot of “talking” to figure out what he or she wants to say. Even when the character comes with a story, it’s still up to me to interview him or her so we can get to know each other better.

Other times, though, I’ll have an idea for a story and what kind of main character it should be about. When this happens, I naturally start with the basics of gender, age, and physical appearance but beyond the superficial I rely upon the character’s actions in the story to show me who they are.

Rarely do I sit down and say that I am going to have a story with a certain type of character. This is something I have been considering more as I think about how to push myself creatively. Sometimes it’s something like having a character of a different ethnic background from previous works. Sometimes it is creating a character based upon a piece of history I read. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to see certain kind of character more in literature and I don’t think I’m reading enough of that particular kind.

In the past I’ve tried using character sheets since it appeals to my natural organized personality, but I found them too tedious. Previously I’ve discussed some of the other reasons why I don’t care for them. A couple of years later and I still feel many of the questions are characters sheets are irrelevant to discovering who the character is. Yes, experiences shape a person but I failed to see how being the oldest child in a family had anything to do with a story in which family wasn’t a theme. Another problem I have with character sheets is often times the questions seem meant for characters and stories set in modern times.

What I do now instead of character sheets is simply brainstorm. I allow stream of consciousness to take over and list what kind of person the character thinks she or he is, what it is he or she wants (a big thing to know before the story starts), any quirks he or she may have, etc. During the brainstorming phase I’ll discover potential minor characters and what their role might be.

The bulk of creating a character for me, though, doesn’t come from filling out character sheets or brainstorming or “speaking” with them but from actually writing the story’s rough draft. As many writers experience, even with plans characters have a way of changing everything by doing what they want to do. To me this is when characters come to life. Think about it. We can all list what kind of person we think we are but it’s not until we are put into a situation that our true self comes out. Why should this be any different for a fictional character?

That’s not to say that someone who is demure suddenly becomes aggressive because he or she is put into a particular situation. There’s a line between change born of an organic cause to acting out of character. But just as in real life, it’s the story that reveals what character. That’s why when it comes to developing a character, for me it is a combination of doing pre-story legwork while allowing for the story to show who the character really is.

As you can see, creating a character isn’t a simple process. For me it’s not a simple process but I’m sure for others it is more straightforward. Whatever method you use as a writer as long as you still come out with interesting and compelling characters then it works.

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