Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Evolution of Men

(Or How I Build My Characters)
Far more often than not (as we have discussed at length in several posts), my stories begin with characters or a scrap of dialog spoken by characters. Fly Away Home began as a conversation between a girl and her famous employer. Famous for what? I didn't yet know. Cottleston Pie started with someone named Simpian Grenadine and his sword, Ruby Elixir. The Windy Side of Care began with one line:
"I should be much obliged if someone would kill me."
And Anon, Sir, Anon began (of course!) with Mr. Orville Farnham. In fact, I believe that every story I have ever started began with a name, personality, or line. But a snapshot of a man does not a good character make. If a character is to be believable, he must be developed into the story and the story developed into him. I recall being put down by Dorothy Sayers when I read The Mind of The Maker:
Too much attention should not be paid to those writers who say (holding one the while with a fixed and hypnotic gaze: "I don't really invent the plot, you know--I just let the characters come into my mind and let them take charge of it." ... Writers who work in this way do not, as a matter of brutal fact, usually produce very good books. The lay public (most of them confirmed mystagogues) rather like to believe in this inspirational fancy; but as a rule the element of pure craftsmanship is more important than most of us are willing to admit." Pg. 67 Dorothy Sayers The Mind of The Maker
I have never been quite so extreme when touting my work as character-driven, but I have carried enough of that lay public mysticism into my work to take that rebuff and apply it personally. I am grateful that by the time I was reprimanded by Dorothy Sayers, I had already begun to take steps toward fixing this tendency so that my work would not be worthy of this second knock:
"... not a character in a situation, but a character looking for a situation to exploit."
Let us think, then, what makes a character a good character? We have heard all the lectures and blog posts and book-chapters about adding back-story and all that jazz, but for me those things can become just about as useful advice as brushing your teeth for two entire minutes twice a day. It's an excellent maxim, I'm certain, but does anyone actually do it? If you do, you can just leave this blog because I don't want to talk to you today. (You are also quite possibly the type of person whose lipstick somehow miraculously doesn't come off on their coffee mug and who would never be that guest who slams the father of the bride in the chest as he approaches to claim his daughter for the customary dance.) What I'm after, dear golden child, is some practical advice as to How To Evolve One's Snapshot: The Illustrated (by moi) Edition:

Step 1: Original Inspiration

This is, essentially, combining your original inspiration with a bit of a closer look at who you want this character to be. This is the brainstorming, fun stage before the cutting-room. Enjoy. Give your character weird tics, crazy family history, a cool hat, a certain accent, or a secret past. Or, you know, all of that. This stage is generally not my forte. I tend to go streamlined and build up from a simple person. Still, this stage is the build-it-up stage from wherever you start. Go wild.

Step 2: Be Rational

Now that you have your World's Most Original freak going on, it's time to tame that wild man from Borneo. In opposition to the crowd that writes psychopathic, emotionally-shredded teenage vampire mothers (and, incidentally,  are also the ones who end up with saggy tattoos by the age of 45), having the craziest characters are not the thing at which good writers aim. You likely do not identify with a purple-bearded, emo circus clown obsessed by the Wild West. (And if you do, perhaps you'd better leave this blog right behind those people who brush their teeth four full minutes a day. I don't know how to handle your type.) Readers want to identify with the people about whom they are reading. Hosting a contest for who can write the next exponentially-Lady-GaGa is not the venue in which most readers wish to find themselves. Save that for later. Instead, start asking yourself questions about your character like, "Why does it matter to the story that he loves peanut butter sandwiches?" "Does he need to be able to juggle knives?" "Does she really need to always be throwing argyle socks into daily conversations?" As original as you think you are, there is a certain level of common sense that must be employed in creating a character. Craziness does not attract me as a reader. I don't like mayhem. I want to read about plausible people and most readers of whom I've inquired feel the same. Think of the most enduring characters in the stories you've experienced and ask the same questions of them that you are asking your character. Through these questions, determine whether you even like all the aspects of the man you've created.

Step 3: The Slaughter-House
You figure out that you don't want to spend an entire book with this character. You actually hate clowns or you know nothing about the technical aspects of life on a pirate ship, or you don't have a passion for research and writing a good novel written in ancient Siberia is going to need more ferreting-out than you've time or inclination for. Good. Your questions have paid off. This is also the stage wherein much coffee is consumed and the hand holding your computer mouse frequently clicks on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You are way caught up on your friends' posts and you click back every two minutes to see if anyone in the world has got interesting and posted anything new. (P.S. They haven't.)

Step 4: Toss-Up

You really do hate clowns and the fact of your character being a clown has absolutely nothing to do with your plot. This is now a non-negotiable and the entire original intent of your character seems to have floated away on a mist-green breeze. (Can breezes be mist-green? At this stage, it's certainly possible.) You have two choices, either of which can be correct, depending on your process. Option 1 is that you will scrap the character entirely. You either do not care so much for this creation of yours as you thought, or perhaps he did not fit this plot and you shelf him for another story another day. Or maybe you're able to be brutally honest and admit he's a pretty scrappy stupid dude and you wish you'd not spent eight dollars on lattes brewing him in your mind palace. Option 2 is that you rip to shreds your original idea and start tailoring something new out of the wreckage. Two doors, both right. Which will you take?

Step 5: Reconstruction

What part of this character forced you to choose Option 2 this time? What is so good about this literal brain-child that you have decided to keep him after all? In the case of our absolutely idiotic Original Specimen, he was a western-obsessed circus clown with depressive tendencies and a beard of amethyst hue. Reams of stuff have been cut off this idea until the only thing left is the fact that there is some guy somewhere who is obsessed with being a cowboy. And truth is, that's not terribly original. Back to the questions and patching together a new snapshot-inspired character out of the smouldering ashes of What Was. How can you make this odd obsession vital to the story? And then ideas start running ... 

Step 6: Successful Character Rendering

Now you've written and published that story that began with a truthfully horrible idea for a for a main character. But no longer are you trifling with ridiculous morons. You've given birth to a new character, you've written the story, you've published the book. Everyone is raving about Charlotte Rodero, the full-blooded Sioux chief's daughter who wants nothing more than to work as a cowgirl at a nearby ranch but whose grandfather (who can still remember the cowboy & indian altercations) is flagrantly against it and struggling with cancer to boot. "How did you come up with this unique character? Can you sign my copy? Where on earth did you get your ideas?"

Maybe you'll want to keep quiet about the emo circus clown, but success is addicting. Feel free to repeat the cycle over and over and over again. And as a completely humble side-note, these visual aids were created with sharpies and paper and photographed and cropped in PicMonkey and are therefore horrible quality and this post took me two hours to write, so bye.


Elizabeth said...

Thank you for posting this! Now I want to go and take a good look at my characters and decide if they need some tweaking. :)

Lady Bibliophile said...

Oh, I have done this again and again. It's a fine line between having a well-rounded, unique character, and having one that becomes ridiculous due to too many details. A trial and error process that can only be fine-tuned in successive drafts of the story. Many times my favorite details about a character come in spur-of-the-moment as I'm writing, and the carefully planned details get cut.

I loved your drawings! They gave me a good chuckle this morning. :)


Emily Ann Putzke said...

This is a great post, Rachel! Thanks for sharing it!

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Love your illustrations! Kind of reminds me of a certain book you recommended recently...

The caption on #1 was what made me giggle. :)

Rachel Heffington said...

I am glad you have all enjoyed this post! Elisabeth, I won't say that book DIDN'T inspire these drawings. You liked the top one? He gave me a chuckle too. Isn't that how so many of our characters begin? ;)

Abbey Stellingwerff said...

...Even though I'm one of those people who brush their teeth twice a day for at least two minutes (actually, in the morning it's more like one minute, and at night it's usually closer to four minutes) I still stuck around and read this post. It was wonderful, and the illustrations were great! Thanks for the insight into your character-building. I have an awkward time with creating characters.

Rachel Heffington said...

Abbey, I am glad you brush your teeth so long. Truly! You shan't lose them when you grow ancient! I am also glad my threats didn't really frighten you away. ;)