I love writing, and half the reason I love writing is because getting to know my characters is a blast.

I know what you’re asking; how do I get to know my characters? I mean they’re all just figments of my imagination right? I mean getting to know them would be like talking back to a bowl of Rice Krispies.

Don't give me any of your god damn lip, Crackle!

Usually I go into a story with a general idea of a character, what they look like, a basic biography and what role they play in the story (main character, villain, etc). Its not until I actually start writing the story that their unique personalities are revealed. Now before you go calling the people in the white coats, let me tell you what I mean. While the basic personality of the character is usually firm in my mind that doesn’t tell the whole story, its more like an online dating profile. At best it gives you a brief glimpse at the personality, at worse its the facade of a maniac who will be wearing you as a skin suit after you agree to meet them in a dark alleyway.

Are you BustyBlonde69?

For instance, while writing the story about the 1945 Warsaw Uprising, the female lead character I had in mind when I first brainstormed the story turned out to be far different than the character that actually appeared in the story. The girl I originally came up with was a rather shy Jewish girl who was hiding from the Germans, that would rely on the male lead to help her escape. As I wrote the story, however, when I was writing the scenes that demanded the character’s make quick decisions, I found that it was the girl who was making the decisions. I didn’t even notice this was happening until I sat down and read through it, and I actually ended up  trying to change it because damn it, I’m not letting a figment of my imagination overrule me! When I did change it, the story no longer seemed natural…everything felt forced and the girl’s character went from being robust and interesting, to a Disney Princess-esque cipher…a two dimensional caricature. So, even though the first draft of that story sucked and has to be completely rewritten, it wasn’t a waste of time because it allowed me to get to know my characters better.

I can’t really explain how these things happen, obviously somewhere in my subconscious I knew the girl was going to be the assertive one, but for some reason it doesn’t become apparent until I’m actually writing. Maybe they’re all different parts of my personality…just lying in wait to splinter off at the first sign of a traumatic event, forcing me to kill my mother, store her remains in the basement and then open a motel.

Anyway, all of this has been leading up to another problem I’ve had with my writing: I love my characters…and I hate to see them fail. You see, in order for a story to be interesting, there has to be some kind of conflict. For my Warsaw story characters, that conflict was their attempt to survive the Warsaw burning down around their ears and the even more difficult task of surviving…puberty. Of course it doesn’t have to be some world changing event like a war either, plenty of romance novels are just stories centered around the drama of human relationships (sandwiched between pages and pages of hot steamy sex). In fact some of the best stories out there are the ones about normal stuff everyone faces, the loss of a loved one (The Boys are Back), owning a dog (Marley and Me), and everything in between.

The one thing no one wants to watch or read, however, is the story of a man who goes to work at the job he loves everyday, comes home to his loving family and goofy dog, and live a completely fulfilled life. No one wants to read that because that’s basically just the ending of a story, there’s no opportunity for drama, character growth, or even to impart a message besides just “Don’t you wish your life was this good?” It is, in a word: boring.

Now I don’t have any trouble throwing my characters into that initial conflict, in fact most of my stories start as a me thinking up a single scenario and forming the rest of the story around it. The trouble comes when I have to throw other roadblocks into the character’s path, roadblocks they can’t overcome. Some of this is due to what I talked about in my last post, guilt and anger over my own past making me want to avoid writing about similar events in my stories, but another part is I just like my characters way too much. This really becomes a problem when I have to shatter a relationship or, even worse, kill off a character.

A short story I wrote a few years ago featured a Minotaur as a main character; he was big, stubborn, and lovable (just like me!) I had originally written him as standoffish and hostile, and while he was in the beginning of the story, he also revealed himself as a highly spiritual and gentle creature. So when the ending of the story came, and it came time for him to die, I was actually unwilling to part with him. Unfortunately I was also unable to save him. I had written myself into a corner (more on that later), there was only one way that any of my characters were going survive, and that one way was if the Minotaur sacrificed himself for the others. It was a suitably heroic end for him, but it was still hard to write, because even though he’s just a character in a story, he’s my character. I wanted him to survive because I wanted to do more stories with him.

In the end the short story didn’t quite work out and I have plans to expand it into a full novel after I finish It’s Always a Sunny Day, and maybe then I’ll manage to save my Minotaur friend. Eventually I know I’ll be forced to kill off other characters that I love, and it’s never going to get any easier. And you know what? That’s a good thing, because if I don’t love my own characters, then my readers won’t care either.

Does that make me crazy? Well, maybe it does, but at least it makes good reading!

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Written by John Stevenson

I'm a freelance writer based out of Seattle, Washington.

One comment

  1. I’ve read a lot of nonfiction work in the past centered on tragic events in history. It seemed to me in reflection that often when the author described the events where some or all of the participants came to an unhappy conclusion, it was always from a narrative viewpoint. Where the participants had a happier outcome, the viewpoint moved closer to a more personal point of view. At times it would move almost to a first person view.

    Since this was nonfiction, the author had no way to change the eventual outcome. It does seem they changed the angle of the lens so to speak, to get the maximum impact of the story.

    With fictional works, the development of characters could be thought of as not just changing the angle of the lens but moving closer to examine them in much more detail. To do this and get the maximum impact, it must be done by building them from the ground up.

    I can see where that would be problematic for the author if they cannot feel or put part of themselves in to the character. Characters are simply an extension of the writer’s inner emotional experiences and intellect. So the character is actually part of the writer.

    In nonfiction works, the author attempts to make a connection with the participants whereas in fiction the author is the participant. Which one is easier to do is certainly open for debate.

    That you would love your characters sounds logical to me since they are, after all, a part of you.

    Thank you for your works here… they do get me thinking.

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