Friday, May 21, 2010

It's All About the Characters - The Creative Process: Part 2

Probably once a week over on Absolute Write there's a thread in the Novels or Basic Writing forum asking "Characters or Story First?" As a result there is a heated debate about plot-driven vs. character driven and after a while the thread balloons to fifty billion posts and either slinks off and dies or gets so hot it gets locked. But as interesting as the plot vs. characters debate is (running a close second to the ever popular Outline vs. Pantsing debate) it doesn't answer the original question.

Should you come up with characters first or the story? And the fact of the matter is (I'll bet you can see this one coming) it doesn't matter. "But," you say. "There should be an order to things! A pattern that I can follow to become the next Stephen King." First let me say that if you find that pattern, please let me know what it is. Secondly, let me repeat: it doesn't matter whether the story or the characters come first.

Here's why.

Sometimes my Shiny Idea is a bit of dialogue. Sometimes it's an image of a character or scene. Sometimes it's a concept for a story. (And by concept I mean something like "Ooh, steampunk zombie apocalypse." Yes. I am writing a novella/novel that hit me in that form. Guys aren't the only ones who write about zombies.) The point being, the creative process is not always predictable. Your Shiny Idea may not come at you the same way every time.

"Oh noes," you say. "That sounds like chaos."

Well, chickadee. It kind of is.

Here's the good news. Whether you're writing plot driven or character driven novels (and no, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive) your characters and story are connected. You will not be able to effectively develop one without the other. (You can develop characters outside of a story and vice versa but the result is frequently a big mess.)

"But this blog is clearly titled "It's All About the Characters," you point out.

Yup. That's partly me being snarky. (Imagine.) And partly because sometimes the Shiny Idea is a character. No story, just a character. Which means you have to know how to develop the character in order to know their story.

Last time I said that developing an idea was all about asking questions. That advice is still the same. But here are some specific questions you should consider when developing characters.

First, an important principle. (Insert standard disclaimer about how this is not an absolute rule.) Books are not about things happening to people. Books are about people who do things. This doesn't mean your character has to know it all or be a superhero. It does mean that good protagonists are active, not reactive.

Now. On to our questions.

The basics:
What is your character's name?
How old is he/she?
What gender/sex?
What socioeconomic niche?
What kind of demeanor does he have?
What kind of grooming/appearance?

These are things you need to know. Me telling you to ask yourself these questions does not give you permission to info-dump the answers when you first introduce the character. But those answers should help you, the author, answer the following set of questions.

What is the character for? What does he do in the story?
How will he grow? Change? Heal old wounds? Defeat his demons?
What are his flaws?
What are his strengths?
What does he know about himself?

"Wait just a flaming minute," you sputter. "How can I know what my character does in the story if I don't know what the story is?"

Let's look at that first set of questions again. When I started developing the character from the little excerpt I posted last time I started with those basic questions. Here are the answers I got.

Name: Jonas Green
Age: Late 30s
Sex: Male
Socioeconomic status: Joined the military because he was dirt poor and wanted to get out of Alabama and see the world.

Bing! Let's stop right there. See that last answer? It's got a bit of story in it. It tells me that the military was better than Jonas' prospects at home. It also told me that there was something going on that would pretty much guarantee that he left the United States.

"Well," you say. "That's just lucky. You happened to ask the right question and think of the right answer."

No. And yes. Here's the really sweet part about writing. We call this process "developing" an idea, but in reality it's more like digging for it. When you get an idea, the rest of it - the characters, the setting, the story, the conflict - is already there, buried in your subconscious. All you have to do is dig it out. And you do that by asking questions. Your brain will supply the answer. (Now, sometimes the information comes out in little chunks that you have to piece together. But that's why we call it "the creative process" and not "the easy process.")

Having a good set of questions makes a difference. But the more questions you ask the more answers you get. And I know you're thinking "This can't work all the time," but it can. Take your character and start grilling them. Find out what their fears are, if they're superstitious, if they believe in God or ghosts or aliens.

Jonas turned out to be so afraid of death (because he's a pretty horrible bastard) that he agreed to let the military reanimate his body after he died. And that right there was my story.

So. There it is. My current answer to everything is: ask freakin' questions.


Jaydee Morgan said...

I love this post. You are so right, it doesn't matter which way you start - story or character. Everyone is different and there are never any absolutes.

Asking questions is the best way to get to understand who your characters are (I've even interviewed a few).

In short, this chickadee seconds your thoughts :)

G.~ said...

When I started the writing process, I had read so many books on "how to" do things. I tried following all sorts of rules and outlines and character sheets, snowflakes, you name it, I tried it.

What I learned is that I had to do it how it came to me. Some days the character was right up front and others, the story was there. Sometimes I could listen to music to bring forward and sometimes it had to be silent. You're right, there is no particular way in doing things, it's just what works for the individual...or character...or story.

I've also learned that the process is going to go the way it goes and it works out much better if I don't try to control it.