Character Building

De KoeninghWhere do they come from, those fascinating, complex, enigmatic-yet-familiar characters who populate our favorite fiction? Writers are always asked that; by their readers, friends and even other writers. Like much of the art we love most, the answers are as varied as the characters themselves. There’s no right way to bring them to life, and the method for their conception is as unique to the individual authors as their own writers’ voices. That’s as it should be; as it is for artists in all genres, no matter how they’ve shared in the process of learning their technique and craft. That training is what gives them the confidence to break out eventually to present their own work. That self-assurance is what helps the characters step up with their own voices, too.

Every fiction writer admits they write about themselves over and over again. And yes, everyone else we’ve ever known on any level appears in our fiction, too. No, of course they aren’t always specifically modeled after someone whose name has simply been changed, although Mark Twain certainly had a lot of success with that technique! But most of us who’ve written fiction find that we and our acquaintances sneak into our work, mostly surreptitiously. That’s fine. We write what we know and the characters are more real because of it. Yet since they’re often more of an amalgam of all the different personalities we’ve encountered, just as people themselves combine different DNA molecules to become something old and new, our characters reflect the depth of the human experience in an exciting and powerful way; but why and how?

If we accept, arbitrarily I’ll admit, that the method behind Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer’s populations represents one extreme end of the spectrum, a place where every major character is designed specifically after one of the author’s acquaintances and just given a new fictitious name (as easily as Mark Twain grew out of Sam Clemens) then where do all the other fictitious souls fall along the range of composite personalities? The simple and true answer is ‘everywhere’, from somewhat familiar and even familial, to ‘never seen you before…I don’t think’.

One of my favorite authors, a Pulitzer Prize winner, so a favorite of many others as well, says she sees her characters at a distance, as if in a dream or far away at a party, and gets curious about them. Who are they, why do they look like that and what are they doing there in the first place? Her innate curiosity about people forces her closer to them to figure them out and then, suddenly, she’s started her book. She holds up the opposite end of the spectrum from Mark Twain, feeling she knows none of them to begin with, but would like to.

I fall between those two extremes exploring the fascination of humanity—inspirational bookends reminding me of the excitement inherent in character building. But if I have a little of Twain, recognizing something of myself and some people I have known, and a little of the writer who thinks she knows none of them at first, then how do they finally get so firmly embedded in my stories? In discussing this with a writer friend the other day I realized there are many layers of creativity that go into the characters. When they start out in my story, it’s because I already have some human characteristics I want to represent in mind, and others I need to round out and enhance the main ones. That’s where some of the secondary characters come in.

As the story develops in its very particular time and place, the environment starts to influence what direction the characters will take. They have to live and grow in their own spot in history. Nature definitely begins to give ground to Nurture and the characters take on a true life of their own, beyond all my clever imaginings. All of a sudden I realize I’m just along for the ride, not the jockey in charge of the race after all, and my horse has just taken the bit in his mouth. That certainly makes writing a lot more fun for me, and I’ll bet a lot more interesting for the reader, too. But now I understand that the environment also gives me my favorite method to unblock my writing if it’s dammed to a trickle. Faced with the empty computer screen after a long, unproductive summer filled with distractions but not much writing, I panicked when I realized I didn’t have a new story pushing itself through the muck in my head. I’ll share my unblocking technique with you.

My summer hiatus from writing left me wondering what to do this fall, now that my most recent novel is finished in first draft. No ideas rose to the surface, a fact that slowly fed a panic I’d never experienced before with my writing. As I prepared to launch my finished book on its second draft path, guided by my generous writing workshop colleagues, I began to think more about the characters I’d left behind in that story. It’s true their narrative ended appropriately in its time and place in history (mid-nineteenth century New York), and their own maturation (early adolescence through young adulthood), but what might happen to them as the century drew to a close and this young country also started to grow up? Post-reconstruction America and the period in the late 1800’s leading to the turn of the century, known as the ‘Gilded Age’, a label coined by none other than Mark Twain, was a fascinating time filled with turmoil and growth. I wanted to learn more about the period, mostly out of curiosity; a big assignment.

I took up the research challenge with no plan in mind other than to try to make sense of what looked like chaos. As I started through the most important issues of the era, I found myself thinking about those characters I’d ‘finished’ and how they’d adjust to and maneuver through the difficulties and excitements of this new world I was learning about. I began to see a glimmer of my next book in the form of a sequel. Now you can tell, I’m sure, that this new book is off and running. My initial research has already formed a world my characters can begin to live in, and I’ve found I have more personal knowledge of the time period than I’d realized at first. Drawing on stories and old pictures of my grandparents’ lives and families, I can fill in some personal details with an assurance that will surely benefit my characters. The discovery that researching another time in history, or ‘scratching around’ as Twyla Tharp would say, started a story in my head that characters can inhabit, and revealed a new technique for unblocking my creativity. I gladly share it with anyone who wants to give it a try. It certainly works for me.

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