Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dating Your Characters

by Rachael Herron

I like my characters. When my characters talk, pull out a chair and watch the fireworks. Sometimes they get the best of me, and leap off the page and run around and have their own little party under my desk, and it's damn hard to round them all up and herd them back into my computer.

(Plot? Suspense? And the dirtiest of all words: Conflict? Yeah, I'm way more comfortable with characters. More on that dilemma another day.)

Of course, my characters don't start off as real, and I think one of the best things I've learned in recent years is not to try to force anything on them. The longer I write a character, the more real they become, without me trying to make them Be anything or Act Certain Ways because they should (they hate that).

It's kind of like dating. On page one, you go on a blind date with your character.

Let's call this blind-date/new character Anna. (See? I just spent less than a second naming her. That's another thing I don't get hung up on. I name them, and if they tell me their real name later, that's a perfect time to sit back and enjoy the magic of Find and Replace. Last names are really fun: I use Oakland city streets for all my main character's last names: MacArthur, Harrison, Bancroft.) Anna doesn't have a last name, though. She's just Anna. Or maybe Anna Pensfatales (pronounced pen-fet-ahl--I know you were wondering). I like that name.

So I take Anna Pensfatales out for a spin. First page = first date. We know nothing about each other. I'm horrified to learn she doesn't eat cheese, and she thinks I'm crazy for having four cats (well, she's right. So I've learned she's smart).

By the second chapter I've learned that she's a little bit snippy first thing in the morning if she doesn't inject caffeine straight into her veins. In the third chapter, I put her in a lace negligee and she gets so annoyed that it takes me the next four chapters to figure out that there's no way in hell she'd ever get into a negligee of her own volition, and she's still ticked and that's why she's being such a donkey.

By the end of the book, though, I know her. She's mine. I get to go back and fix all the times I screwed up, changing her sentences to lines she'd actually utter, changing her actions to things she'd actually attempt and carry out. And by now, she likes me, too, and she's willing to work with me. A little more, anyway.

(Now, crazily, I'm a bit fond of this Anna and may give he a little walk-on part in the novel I'm editing now. See? She suckered me!)

Yep. Characters are just people, and I am very like Kenneth on 30 Rock who stated, "There's only two things I love in this world: everyone and television." Amen, Kenneth, amen.


Angela Ackerman said...

Great post. probably the biggest aspect i struggle with is characters. I guess I eel like I have to know them before I start writing, but maybe I don't and it's an evolution. My best characters come when I let them take over though, but I do have a tendancy to pen them into my vision of the story. Maybe the next time I sit down to draft I'll start with the character, not the plot and see where it goes. :-)

Martha Flynn said...

AGH! You guys are killing me - how do you do it? How do you write character? Can't you just MAKE Angela like cheese? Can't you just shove some gruyere down her throat and say "mmm....tasty!"?

Sigh. I wish I understood. I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy.

Judy H. said...

Isn't it kind of scary the way they can rebel like that? The first time I had a character give me the raspberry because I tried to make her do something she didn't want to do really baffled me.

I read The French Lieutenant's Woman in a lit class in college, and there's a scene where the author breaks the third wall and tells us the main character wanted to stop and get a drink, when he (the author) didn't want him to. I remember my prof saying, "Now, what is the author saying here? Because we know that isn't really what happened..." I didn't have the courage to speak up and tell her that it was exactly what the author said. Wish I had.

Melissa said...

I have one story I'm writing and well the characters created the story. I mean I know these people, they are inside me and have a story they want me to tell. I don't know what it is but I know them. I know what they eat, how they dress, who they hang out with, but this story they want me to write, well they are dishing it out to me in fragments and when I put it together all wrong boy do they get pissed. LOL

The other story, I know the story I want to write but the people in the story, I'm getting them all wrong, over and over. It's making me nuts!

Dana Fredsti said...

Maybe we are all just characters in our CHARACTERS' imaginations...and we're pissing THEM off by behaving badly... Hmmmm....