Some people read for plot, but I read for character. If I don't care about the people, I won't care about what's happening to them.
— Victoria Schwab (@veschwab) March 7, 2015
I love talking to other writers about the craft of writing, and in particular, which comes first for them: the plot, the world, or the characters? Obviously, the balance between all of these is important, but you can’t always control what strikes you first. If I had my choice, I would always start with characters, because to me (as the tweet up there suggests) they are the most important element of fiction.
Typically, though, I get the plot first, the “what if?” For my last novel, a YA fantasy featuring elves (and some other cool stuff) I spent a long time figuring out the world and toying with the plot. In the midst of all that my main character, Maev, stomped into my brain and demanded I spend some time thinking about her.
Characters may come later for me in the brainstorming process, but they inevitably take over everything. When I sat down to start the manuscript, I realized I didn’t know where to begin. But wait! A voice! In comes Maev, cracking her knuckles and saying, “I got this.” And we were off. But before we got to that point, I had to really get to know her.
In my obsessive reading of other authors’ creative processes, I have frequently come across writers saying that their characters come to them fully formed. That’s fantastic for them, but I have yet to experience that luxury. I usually get a basic idea for a character, then spend a LOT of time brainstorming the character in the form of a conversation. I always start this conversation, or interview, if you will, the same way: how do you open a pickle jar?
Yes, a pickle jar. Or, if you’re like me and never have pickles in the house because you and your spouse are divided between the sweet pickle and dill pickle camps, call it a jar of marinara sauce or jelly or whatever else comes in jars.
Have you ever paid attention to the vast range of reactions that people have when a jar is hard to open? It’s fascinating. Some people give up immediately. Some people are very methodical and use a fix, like running it under water, or tapping it, or using one of those silicone grip things. Other people just put all of their physical strength into opening it because they will not be beaten. (Yes, I’m one of those.)
Answering that simple question gives me a good leaping off point for the rest of the character, and I spend what may be an awkward amount of time thinking about how that character would face such a simple task. Once I know the answer to the pickle jar question, I talk with my characters… out loud… and respond for them in my mind. It sounds weird, but it’s highly effective, even if it does cause my dog to run into my office and stare at me.
The pickle jar question, as I said, is just a jumping off point. You can choose any starting point you like, but the important part is to talk with your characters. When you’re having a conversation with somebody, typically you don’t spend a lot of time carefully crafting what you say. Your responses are instinctive. Our brains process the incoming information and produce responses lightning fast, and that’s the point you want to reach with your characters when you start writing their dialogue and reactions. It should just be natural — of course this is what he or she would say.
That’s why I talk to my characters. I spend time getting into their mindsets, and talking to them/for them helps me get into those instinctive head spaces that are exclusively theirs. I find out the ways they naturally react to things, their attitudes, their likes, dislikes, biases, etc. — and all of it comes together to form those character voices.
Writing convincing, real characters is often just a matter of getting out of your own way and letting the characters take over. But you can’t do that when you don’t know who the characters are. While I don’t use anything this formal or structured (I mean, hello, pickle jar), lots of other writers conduct character interviews.
The internet is an AWESOME resource for things like this, and you can find exhaustive lists. Marcel Proust’s list has been recovered and can be found here. Laurie Campbell at AutoCrit compiled a really useful post about four different methods of interviewing your character. Or maybe you can just create your own! If you have your own method of character interviews, let me know.
Just like getting to know any real person, becoming familiar with your characters is a process, and it takes time to uncover all the nooks and crannies of their personalities and back stories. It’s a journey to get to know those fictional people, but it can also be a lot of fun.
How would your main character open a pickle jar?
Copyright © Teresa Morse 2015