Where the Character Leads, I’ll Shine a Flashlight

Thinking about how I develop characters is tricky, because I’ve never given it tons of thought. My only truly conscious choice is that I don’t particularly care for giving characters physical descriptions. As a reader I tend to apply my own biases to envisioning the character. For instance, I read Pride & Prejudice while envisioning the actors from Bridget Jones’ Diary. So I try not to bother beyond broad strokes.

But that’s not the important part, is it? Everything else is And honestly, I don’t need to know most of the meat of a character I start: just a name and a general idea of who they are. I find that the more time I spend penning back story, the less likely I am to write the actual story.

I suppose I enjoy the act of discovering the characters. As much as I hate editing — and I do — I love the point when I’m reading something I’ve written and I start to actually understand the people who drive the story. When I write a story about Arthur, he’s just a plumber doing his thing when space junk falls out of the sky. Arthur has his reasons for moving the plot, but while I’m writing it’s a fabricated thing. It’s not going to be until I’m reading that it feels like more than words. Once I’m reading I’ll see why a specific turn of the story was right (or wrong) and what that specific event says about Arthur that I didn’t realize at the time.

While writing I’ll sketch out some character back-story as I need it. When Belinda goes home before starting her journey, I’m going to make note of how many siblings she has so I can figure out who’s going to be there when she arrives and how that’s going to change the story. While editing I’m going to realize that she’s been dreading Cooper’s opinion most of all, because she was closest to him growing up and she knows he wouldn’t approve. Then I’ll start to look at him — why doesn’t he approve and how did those values become know ton my character in their childhood? (It would appear I write hypothetical soap operas.)

The hardest thing is resisting the urge to beat the reader over the head with things like, “Daniel feels this way because a clown killed his father.” I want the reader to discover that about Daniel on their own. ┬áThe reader can know that a clown murdered his father, and associate his utter hatred for carnivals accordingly. (It’s a comical soap opera, I guess.)

I like to tell myself that this reflects how the reader will interact with a character, but the truth is I just don’t know. I can never tell how much of my understanding of a character is in my head and how much of what I see is actually on the page. And that’s hard, because (for me) stories are about people — and I can’t just hand-wave a character to make a story. Science? Definitely. Character? Not so much.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.