Character Creation

The basic building blocks that make a good story are well-known and relevant no matter what medium you use to tell your tale. But your understanding of those tools will change over time, with practice and experience. By way of example, let me natter for a bit about the way my understanding of how to create a character has been refined over time.

A long time ago, when I was a very young and foolish writer, I thought I knew how to make a character. It was a simple business; you needed a name, hair and eye color, maybe an age or profession. Boom! A ready-made puppet poised to act out the things I wanted to happen in my story. This unfortunate idea was supported by the scourge that is the AD&D character sheet.

As I grew older and marginally more skilled, my understanding of character grew a shade more complex. I started thinking in broader terms of character as personality, above and beyond surface attributes. Were they funny? Impulsive? Cowardly?

For the first time, I came to understand that the actions a character can take in a story should necessarily be limited by that collection of traits. Cowardly Caroline wouldn't take it upon herself to bust that ring of horse thieves, and sterling-hearted Chief Halloway wouldn't start taking bribes to let the orphanage ignore fire codes. Before that, I never needed a reason more thought-through than "because it's what I want to happen." But things shouldn't happen if they are out of character, eh?

As my understanding of my tool improved, so, too, did my stories. But they were still pretty bad.

Sometime over the last five or six years, and due in large part to my plum position at the knee of the spectacular Naomi Alderman, I've gradually developed a richer-yet understanding of what it is to make a character. It turns out that everything I thought I knew in the beginning was wrong. A character isn't a collection of adjectives; a character is a web of relationships to people, ideas, things, emotions. A character is the inevitable sum of the experiences that made that person who they are.

It's not enough to know that Yolanda cracks jokes. You need to know why she's like that. Does she crave attention? Long to be in show business? Is it a nervous habit? Does she lack respect for authority? Once you look at a character in these terms, the parts of them laid out like the gears of a watch, what once felt like decisions about your story become nothing but the obvious tick-tock of that person existing in their web of relationships.

And now I know what "character-driven plot" means, too. The plot is not found in the motions your characters go through, merely so you have an interesting story to tell. Your plot should be relentless and inevitable, full of characters making the only decisions they could conceivably make in those situations, simply because of who they are.

I may yet have miles to go. They say writers don't generally write their masterwork until their 50s or so. That's pretty far away for me, and it would be a damn shame if I didn't learn anything between now and then. But that's where I am now.

How about you? What have you learned, through time and hard-won experience?

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