At a recent book signing I was asked, “How do you come up with a character for a story?”
Good question. My inquisitor gave the example (from something she’d recently read ) of a 6’ 4” male from a broken home. From her suspicious expression, she seemed to think there was some sort of trick for coming up with fictional characters.
I don’t think there is a trick, or, at least, not one trick, to character choice. In genre fiction there are character types you need to include- -lovers in a romance, the killer in a murder mystery and so on- -but within any given story, these “types” could be just about anybody.
For me, the characters usually appear in my head, and it’s what the characters are doing that tells me who they are. In Small-g City, my first clear image was an unusually tall couple taking a brisk walk down Seattle’s Third Avenue. Why were they walking so fast? Were they walking for exercise or arguing or trying to get away from someone? Why were they unusually tall? Were they professional athletes or- -or gods? Yes, that was it, but what kind of gods? And what would gods be doing in Seattle? She wore a short red dress and he was in a plaid shirt and chinos. Why would gods dress like that? They must be working undercover. Eventually, they became Jim and Candy Smith.
After slogging through the first draft I had eight major characters and a general idea of what they would do in the story, but there were lots of missing pieces. Before tackling another draft I stepped back and wrote biographies for each of them, starting with the facts revealed in the first draft and working from there. I filled in blanks about family background, appearance, education, beliefs and desires, then interviewed the characters to better understand their motives.
If you don’t write fiction this might sound wacky, but I can give you a non-fiction example of why the interview component of character building is crucial. I recently read an interview with Olivier Rousteing, 30-year-old creative director of the French fashion house Balmain. On the surface, Rousteing seems superficial- -he romps with the Kardashians and plays the “glamour boy” card to the public. Underneath this facade is considerable daring, talent and mountains of hard work, but I didn’t connect with him until I learned why he was obsessed with fashion. Olivier Rousteing, a person of mixed race with white parents, was adopted as an infant but didn’t realize it until he was eleven years old. After a fruitless search to learn the identities of his biological parents, he turned to clothing to create an identity and a sense of wholeness, something his unknown origins couldn’t provide.
With fictional characters, this kind of information is crucial to providing consistency of thought and action, what an actor would call being “in” character. David Bernstein of Small-g City was raised by a social worker who instilled in him the value of being kind. When David, a barista, is approached by a homeless person who asks how much for a cup of coffee, David charges fifty cents and covers the balance out of his tip jar. I know David is a compassionate person, so I know how he’ll react when faced with someone less fortunate. I also know that the imagined voice of woman who raised him will correct him if he’s tempted to waver from what he knows is right. Understanding the emotional core of fictional characters keeps them honest. It keeps the writer honest, too.
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