Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Character Building

Now that I'm fully back in the writing groove, I am in the mood to talk writing. Before I do, let me plainly state it is my belief there is no right way to create fiction. Sure there are lots of wrong ways, but quite possibly there are just as many correct ways.

So while in a way this could be taken as advice I am more than anything simply sharing my methods. Take them for what they're worth since I haven't exactly achieved my goals as of yet.


I write character driven pieces. Every last novel I've ever started, much less finished, has began with a character what-if.

What if a woman who regrets the abortion she had at 17 enters into a relationship with a man who thinks his wife would still be alive if she had opted terminate her pregnancy.
That what if turned into A River Without Water and from the very start I had very definite idea of who and what both protagonists were as characters.

What if a man discovers that his lifetime of bad luck has actually been good luck and that only through misfortune can he find his true path to happiness? I knew details of my main character of UnLuckLess long before I knew the crux of the plot.

What if a middle-aged car salesman with a pirate fetish gets tire of always giving in and decides to do a bit of plundering of his own? Plundered Booty would be a vastly different novel with Hank Zybeck's narrative voice, and it was that voice that guided me in writing the novel.

Other novelists start with a plot or a premise and build characters to fit.

A ticking time bomb is on the dam and unless it is disarmed in time, the entire valley, including the children's orphanage will be under fifty foot of water.
The hero could be a cop, a former navy seal, or an average Joe thrust into action.

There is some secret code hidden in a famous painting that threatens to redefine an entire religion.

Both styles have merit if properly done, but I only seem able to build a fictional world after I have created characters to inhabit it. And when I think about my favorite novels of all time it is the characters that stand out. More so that the nuances of the plot. The characters are the meat of a good tale, but without plot to move things forward, the book could never truly be great. One needs the other, just as a meat patty needs a bun to be a hamburger. Otherwise it's just a junk of ground beer on a plate.

So after i have my character what if, I sit down and write up brief snippets of life from not only that character but everyone that I am aware will inhabit the story.

For major characters, those that have POV's (Point of view) or have key roles in affecting plot I write five or six of these snippets.

These are not short stories but more slice of life vignettes. I usually start with one form early childhood, possibly the characters earliest memory. Then I progress up through their life writing an important even from variety of ages. School years, maybe their first date or first crush. A taste of their college years or first job perhaps. Earlier marriages and such. I try to write a few pages for each of these and I try to include as many emotions as I can. Happiness, anger, lust, jealousy. Discovering how my character deals with these emotions makes it much easier to write their reaction to later events.

Before I ever write word of my novel i will have 15 to 20 pages of material on my protagonist and anywhere from 2 or 3 pages to a dozen or so for the other characters. Sometimes I am halfway through a novel before I realize a new character is needed. At that point I will stop and create their back story. Sometime a character i thought would be needed gets cut but I save their history in case they ever fit somewhere else.

Very little of what I create in writing these pages ever makes the novel but by simply writing these details down and knowing them myself makes it easier to write and it saves me time down the road.

I have found by starting at an early age and progressing forward I am able to grow with the character. I can shape and manipulate them to be what I need them to be while at the same time discovering the background info that makes each one truly unique.

These slice of life vignettes are not great writing. I do not edit them for grammar or punctuation. I really on telling for the most part and there are shy on setting and other details unless there is a direct affect on the characters emotions.

A few of these have later turned into short stories but most never see the light of day. Another important character development that comes from these stories are the the characters names. I AGONIZE over names since I try very hard to select names that conjure some sort of mental image or reaction from a reader. I try names out on unsuspecting coworkers to see if they associate the name with any particular type of person.

In A River one of my protags is a retired rodeo star turned pro poker player. He is a Texan and a true man's man. I finally dubbed him Blue Riggins and most who have hard the name can guess at least a few of his character traits even without reading a single word. When you can accomplish that you are ahead of the game.

It is important to choose names that fit the time period. You don't want a character born in the twenties to be named Chloe, Brittany, or Caitlynn. Nor do you want one born in 1990 to be called Homer, Wilfred, or Eugene. Unless of course you are writing a boy named Sue style of story where the characters odd moniker or outdated name is a source of irritation and conflict.

Keep setting and social stature in mind as well. An east coast socialite is not likely to be named Ellie Mae and a deep south good ol' boy wouldn't come across well with a name like Landon or Blaine.

Scarlett O'Hara would not have been nearly as vivid a character had she been named Mary Jones, but at the same time you don't want to get so vivid or unique that the reader can't relate. For me at least many of the names in fantasy and Sci-Fi are so crazy I can't even pronounce them much less relate and form an opinion by the name. Guharialex and Bjuhkaferv and such turned me off a as reader. I understand the need to fit the genre, but if I can't even sound it out I eventually make up my own nickname. Guharialex might become goulash and Bjuhkaferv might be Bunkkperv. Trust me you don't want a reader making up goofy nicknames for you characters. At that point you've made your job selling them harder.

So now you have a bit of back story and a name for your character. Next you must use words to paint them in a way that they fell real for your reader. In my next post I'll talk about the methods and way to accomplish this.


the walking man said...

So that's how it's done...seriously I do it with a first line and go from there. Maybe I am not task oriented enough when writing longer works.

Next time I have an urge for a long piece Travis I am going to read these so make them clear (as this one is) because I want to print them and keep them for reference.

G said...


Kind of nice to see the inner workings of a writer.

I'm sort of like the first poster, in that I start with a line (usually a piece of dialouge), and then work from there.

stu said...

Not that I want to be picky, but aren't your starting points essentially still premises, even if they lean more towards character development than plot points?

Erma said...

I love the development of characters...although I've never thought to build a story just around the character him/herself... always opting for the situ to drive the tale. Characters just add...well, character... but their stories can be just as interesting, just as compelling, as any great plot. Thanks for sharing... think I may give it a try.

Chris Eldin said...

When I first started writing, almost four years ago, someone gave me great advice, and it was all about character. The first piece was: make your characters DIFFERENT! Make them interesting.
The second piece was along the lines of 'you can have a great plot, but if the reader doesn't care about your character, then they're going to stop reading.'
I also believe in the character-driven story.

Bubblewench said...

That is really interesting.. never thought about the 'back stories' of characters. Huh...

I make my own nicknames up when they are like Guharialex too.

alex keto said...

"The characters are the meat of a good tale, but without plot to move things forward, the book could never truly be great. One needs the other, just as a meat patty needs a bun to be a hamburger. Otherwise it's just a junk of ground beer on a plate."

Yup, that's it in a nutshell

ElanaJ said...

Wow, what a great way to make sure your characters come to life!

Melanie Avila said...

I love this. The only time I've done character plotting before the actual writing was for NaNo, and that was only because we weren't allowed to start writing until Nov 1st. We could plot, etc, so I did that. It helped me a lot.

That said, my current wip just flowed out of me BUT the MC is loosely based on a real person, so any time I've needed to figure out how he'd react in a given situation, I just fall back on that person.

btw, the same thing bugs me about fantasy. Why make it harder on the reader?

writtenwyrdd said...

I combine the character What If with the idea for an environment. But I'm writing fantasy or sf and I have to do that, I feel, or the character could be a complete miss. But that's a need for the genre, jsut like a mystery needs some crime or mystery to solve. So the writer has to deal with those genre-specific issues and in some part build characters to suit.

But I vastly prefer the characters' choices to drive the plot, so I aim for character-driven stories.

Charles Gramlich said...

that second idea, about the man whose bad luck has really been good luck! I've had that same thought. Sometimes have wondered if I'm not living that life.

Melissa Marsh said...

Great post! I usually have a detailed bio of my characters, too. Sometimes it's fun, though, when I'm in the midst of writing the novel, to have something come up from their past that I never knew about. :-)

Cloudia said...

This is real good advice! Thank you, Travis.

Rene said...

Great post.

I usually start with a scene. It is character driven and I build from there. I write in first person so I'm mostly concerned with my heroine and the other characters are there to help her go through her arc.

The scenes I start with generally are the most vile and black I can think of. I'm more motivated by my characters' misery.

Lissa said...

Travis!! I admit I have been remiss in reading your blog, and willingly confess it has been a mistake. You are a most informative teaacher!! Thanks for a great article.

Did you know that Margaret Mitchell's first choice for Scarlett's name was Pansy? That would have created an entirely different character!! LOL.

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post! I think starting with characters is probably the best way to have a gut-grabbing story. Personally, though, I seem to almost always start with setting.

Eric said...

This is a great post. I have never done as in-depth an analysis with characters as you have done here, so maybe that's what I'm missing. Thanks for running through this. Now I'm off to read part 2.

Janet said...

The whole character-driven vs. plot-driven writing thing is being discussed right now at the Novel Matters blog, if you're interested.