When I read a book, if it is a good one, I fall in love with the characters. We all do. We even begin to care about the bad guys. When the book ends, I don’t want to leave those folks I’ve gotten to know through the author’s ability to bring them to life.
Now that I’m being a better “good girl” writer and actually writing on a daily basis, I’m realizing that I get the same pleasure from my characters who develop along with the story.
I’ve always felt guilty because I don’t do character studies, at least not in an organized way. I don’t have a card file with descriptions of characters and locales. I don’t have character sheets and even on my Scrivener, I’m not using the character sheet template. (Dear Nuns of my elementary and high school lives would recall that I also was terrible with completing outlines for my writing.) I’ve come to realize, however, that there is a file box tucked somewhere in my grey matter. As a great observer of people, risking being arrested as a stalker, I can watch people for hours. In a restaurant, I eagerly try to hear their conversations. Watching people while at the beach, I note the variety of shapes, sizes, etc. of their physique and the bathing gear they use to enhance (or not) those physiques. Looking at two people having a conversation that I can’t hear, I make up stories in my mind of what is going on based on body language. So, it’s not that I don’t pay attention to character traits, I just don’t do what many how to write sources suggest I do with developing a character study.
I find that my characters develop with the story. When I begin a story, I have a situation or general plot in mind. Kind of like backwards design in teaching, I know where I want to be at the end of the story. I have a general idea of who the main characters are, but many of the details emerge as they travel through the storyline. Minor characters are even less defined as we begin our adventure together. An example follows:
Currently I’m working on a fiction story about Queen Guenever (of Camelot) when she was a young girl. In the story an unlikely friendship develops between her and Emma who is the complete opposite in position, manner, dress, and certainly grace. The story could be called historical fiction but I’m afraid it isn’t quite. To begin with, it’s hard to gather actual facts on the Arthurian period that in itself seems to be mostly fiction. Also, the time of the story would be at the very beginning of the middle ages. I find very little information of that time, or at least information that would make my story more interesting. For example, castles weren’t what I was lead to believe as I read and watched all those books, plays (I loved “Camelot”), and movies. They were more like earthen and wooden rather than huge and stone structures. So, for the sake of my story, I’ve pushed Guenever and Emma into the middle/later periods of the Middle Ages.
Anyway, back to my point. I wanted a very minor character to be Guenever’s teacher. In truth, she probably wouldn’t have had one but my story needed her to have one. There are many choices for a character like that: old, wise, young, handsome, brilliant, snobbish. Other than being a male, he had very little definition in my mind. I began by going to my reference sheets (which I can conveniently store on my Scrivener) that contain first and sur names that would be common during the middle ages. I spent a good half an hour or more playing around with various combinations. I finally landed on one that screamed to me, “I am that teacher character.” The name? It’s Umfrey Urry. Isn’t that delicious? It was a name that could thoroughly confuse Emma and immediately shaped his looks and manner for me. As I introduced him to the story, he came alive, in his snobbish dead-pan way. He makes Gurenever, Emma, and myself laugh – behind his back, of course.
I will continue to seek out advice about how to write from as many sources as I have time to find. What I’m learning, though, is that there is no cookie cutter “how to write”. Our approach to writing has to be the one that works for us. I can try the suggestions I come across but in the end I have to find the ones that work for me. As you know, my current mentor is Stephen King through his book, On Writing. I was pleased to read his take on character development and especially resonated with this statement, “For me, what happens to characters as the story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along…” That works for me.
I’m not a published writer, at least not in the way that some folks I’ve met in writing groups consider “published”. I’ve been called a “hobby writer” which is okay. I have a number of educational works that were published and a chapter in a book. I have my fiction work in group publications like Hoosier Horizons and the Edge of the Prairie. That’s it. But I am a committed writer. As I wrote about in a previous blog, I write because I can. I write because I enjoy the adventures my characters and I experience. I write because I love my characters.