A Living Hobby

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” – Ernest Hemingway

As a short fiction writer, I have never concerned myself with character development. I start writing, and the character comes out subconsciously. When the first draft is complete, I have gotten to know my character.  I’ve spent time with him and know who he is. During the second draft, I bring him more into focus in the early parts of the story.

The good side of this is that it is very organic and spontaneous. It is beautiful, like watching a flower bud bloom before me in time-lapse vision. The bad side is that I am flying blind, and significant parts of the story will have to be re-written.

When I wrote my novel, I felt I needed to do a little more planning. I decided to utilize something closer to my method when writing screenplays. The way I was taught, in order to write a screenplay, you need to do a lot of preparation. You have to know your character before you start the first page because you don’t have the luxury of finding him in that format.  Instead, you write character biographies, as in depth as you can, about the character and his life.

This is written as quickly as you can write it, much like laying down a short story. You don’t want to over-think the biography. Let it flow.  Let the character speak through you. Don’t speak for him. If you think too much, you run the risk of making your character seem to convenient, or too stock.  Don’t concentrate on the character’s actions within your conflict.  Look at his characteristics away from it.  What was your character like before his life went to Hell?  You may not use it all, but you never know what may become important later.

If you are a writer, chances are you are a people-watcher, as well. Your mind has picked up various ways of speak, mannerisms, habits, and all sorts of character traits that you aren’t even aware you saw. As you work, these will flow through you.

When doing a character biography, I will write as much detail as I can. One of the most important things to remember, I feel is that your characters have to have life away from the main plot. Whatever it is you do for a living, chances are you don’t do it every waking moment. You have hobbies, things you enjoy, people and places you love. Your characters have these things, as well.

A hobby or habit can really add depth to your characters. A person’s hobbies tell us something about him. Your readers will pick up on those things. It will also give them a sort of anchor to reality. Everyone knows someone who plays city league softball or dabbles in origami with Wal-Mart receipts while standing in line at the movies.  Everyone can relate to people who play the guitar badly, or write stories vaguely influenced by the work of Southern Gothic authors.

A benefit of making your character a hobbyist is that you get to learn those hobbies yourself. Learning something new is always a treat, no matter how small of a thing it is. Get your characters a hobby so they don’t get burnt out pursuing their goals.

Just like a real person, everything your character does is driven by what has happened in his life up to that point. If you don’t know his past, then how are you going to know where he goes next? If you don’t know, then who does?

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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