Writing Process #4: A Bit of Character

THIS post should really have come a bit sooner. I mentioned in an earlier post (#2, I think) that I begin to develop my characters in parallel with developing the story, as I expand it from a few paragraphs to a full scene-by-scene description. But I didn’t go into detail, and I should have. So let me put that right before I go too much further.

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This is what I said: “Story is characters. Characters are story. You can’t have one without the other.” And I said a little bit about how I build up my characters as I’m building the story. So let me expand on that.

Character Drives Story

ALAN—our protagonist—is walking home from the pub with his friend Bert. On the way they encounter a couple of other guys. Bert’s had a bit too much to drink, and says something that one of these other guys takes offence at. Tension. There’s a fight coming. What happens next?

That all depends on Alan’s character. He might be scared of getting hurt and just step back out of harm’s way. Or he might say something to try to defuse the situation. Or he might square his shoulders and step up beside Bert to warn the other guys off. Or he might be a bit handy with his fists and relish the idea of a bit of rough and tumble. Or he might be torn between running away, and risking lost teeth to help his friend.

What happens next, then, depends on Alan’s character. Character drives the story, decides which direction things go. So it’s important to know your characters. If you don’t know Alan, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you can’t write the scene.

One way to get to know Alan is to work out his back story. So I might say to myself something like, Alan grew up in a small town and he didn’t see a lot of violence, apart from a couple of lads who tended to bully some of the other kids. Once, one of them punched Alan and threw him into a pond, and Alan’s been scared of getting into fights ever since. And so on. I could figure out an entire history for Alan (and since he’s my protagonist, I certainly should do that in some detail), and that will help me get to know who he is and how he’ll react in a given situation.

Another thing I need to know about a character is their motivations. Back story can give you a lot of that, but I also try to think about two particular aspects:

  • What the character wants
  • What the character needs

These can be two very different things. The character will be aware of what they want, but they might not recognise what they really need. When the wants and needs are in some kind of opposition, conflict ensues. That makes for an interesting story. For example: Vernon wants the winning lottery ticket that’s being blown away by the wind, but running after it means leaving his friend William hanging from the flagpole on the side of the skyscraper—and he needs William’s friendship. He’s torn between going after the ticket, and helping William back to safety.

Story Drives Character

CHARACTERS that don’t change aren’t as interesting as ones that do. Your main characters should be changed in some way by the voyage between the beginning and the end. The story needs to punch them in the gut, open their eyes, teach them something about the world or about themselves or about something they love. And as part of planning your story, you need to plan how the story is going to affect your characters.

I have to admit that I used to be a bit vague on how I did that in my earlier writing. I didn’t really have a method for it, and I tended to just let the story happen and do whatever it did to the characters. But just letting the story push the characters around isn’t very satisfying. The characters need reasons to push back, to force their own stories the way they want them to go (and of course when different characters try to push the story in different directions you get more conflict, and your story is better for it). By having a more focused method, you gain a lot more control over how you get your characters to grow.

What I do these days is based on something I found in Chuck Wendig’s excellent book, The Kick-Ass Writer. It’s the idea of the character arc, which put simply is a way to describe your character’s changes as three keywords representing how they are at the beginning, middle, and end of their own path. For example, Denial to Doubt to Acceptance, or Timid to Pressured to Confident. Keeping the descriptions short and to the point—single keywords in those examples—makes it easier to keep them in mind as you develop your characters over the course of the story. And that in turn will help make the scenes work better, because the characters will act in ways consistent with their personalities and the arcs you want them to follow.

Until next time . . .

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