In which we make people

Sarah Monette and Justine Larbalestier both posted about characterization recently. It’s always interesting to me to hear other writers describe their methods, because sometimes they are so different from mine, and sometimes very similar. Also–since these are real writers–it’s very, very helpful.

I think of myself as a character writer. I usually begin work with an image of a person in a place, doing something. For example: a guy crossing a vacant lot, stopping to look at a caved-in jackolantern. The guy is maybe seventeen, he’s Caucasian and he’s carrying a backpack. He’s wearing running shoes and jeans. The vacant lot is stubbled with grass and the busted-up jackolantern has been there for some days.

This image tells me a lot of things about my setting and my character, if I look at it long enough. The time of year must be November, because of the rotting jackolantern. That means the guy must be in the first semester of his senior year, because he doesn’t look quite old enough to be in college. That means his pack likely holds school books. He’s wearing running shoes: maybe he likes to run. Maybe he’s on the school track team. He stops to look at the pumpkin: maybe he was one of the people who busted it up and left it in this vacant lot. Or it could have been his friends, who like to get drunk. He goes along with them sometimes but he feels bad about it because it might affect his track performance.

…And somehow this image has become the jumping-off point for a lot of information about Guy and his life.

Now that I know Guy is a white teenager dressed in the clothing of the early nineties, I can give him a name suitable to that culture and period. And once I have a name, all this occult stuff in my brain starts churning: associations and meanings and directions start falling into place.

The next step Guy takes will be the first plot action in the story. I don’t need to know where the story is going, and I probably won’t know until I’m around the two-thirds mark. All I need to know right now is who Guy is, and what else is happening around him. Since he is Guy, he’ll act and react only the way Guy would, not the way I would.

Since I like to write this way, rather than play God and suck Guy into another dimension or make zombies chase him, my next step is to create another character whose life is somehow connected to Guy’s life. She’ll start acting and reacting too, and before I know it, I have a plot that consists of the tension between the wants and needs of Guy and his girlfriend, or Guy and the zombie queen, and whoever else I bring into the picture.

Why do I need to tell myself about this right now? Well, I keep doing it wrong in the Not-a-Werewolf book. Part of me wants to introduce some new people, so I keep trying to wedge them into various scenes. It’s the wrong approach. All I really need to know is who Maksim would call. And if he wouldn’t call anyone, then the only way these people can get into the book is if they’re the kind of people who would follow Maksim around and get in his business, and I don’t think they are. That’s why this chapter isn’t working. I need to get myself out of the action, and let Maksim do what Maksim would do. Full stop.

Thank you; and now, to follow my own instructions.

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