I’ve just cruised past 30,000 words in my work in progress (WIP) manuscript, and have reached the point where the characters feel as real to me as well, real people. I love this stage.
And as strange as that may sound, I promise it’s stranger having these fictional people in my head 24-7! They eat with me, dream with me, go on runs with me, and occupy a lot of my brain space when I’m driving and cooking, in particular. Which, aside from distracting me when I’m trying to count teaspoons of salt for a recipe, means this manuscript is gelling. It’s working. And that is well worth the crowded nature of my brain these days.
Now I don’t know how others do it, but when I’m starting a new book I think a lot about the main character, or protagonist, but don’t spent much time on secondary players (unless they have a big role to play). I typically choose my protag’s name (I write women’s fiction, so always a woman) — first and last (I use baby naming sites for this!) — and write a character sketch that looks something like this (this one is fictional … well, I guess they’re ALL fictional, but you know what I mean …):
Name: Elli Drummond
Age: 29 / Married
Lives in: Honolulu, Hawaii
Eye/Hair: Green / Blonde from a bottle
Quirks: is deathly afraid of earthquakes + allergic to shellfish, has never left the US
Major likes: her job, coconut cupcakes, large fedora hats being back in style, and her co-worker, Damian (uh oh…)
Major dislikes: island living, shellfish (see above), her pale, Irish skin that won’t tan, being embarrassed, her husband’s job (pro surfer)
I also think about what the character’s greatest fear is, what she dreams about, where she grew up and number of siblings, and the types of books/television shows she watches.
Then, I start writing.
For me, if I do too much plotting on characterization my characters start feeling flat and all cardboard-like. Which = characters no one wants to read about. Of course, sometimes my list of begins looking a tad, oh, predictable (seriously, green eyes and blonde hair AGAIN?), and so I make adjustments as I go.
But as for the other players in the story, I typically have some idea who needs to show up when, but I don’t plan for them the same way. I like it when I’m in the middle of a scene and an unexpected character comes knocking on the plot door, wanting to be let in. Those are some of the best moments, and a number of my characters (including some who end up becoming major players) came about that way.
For example, in my current WIP I gave my protagonist one sibling, a sister. Then I realized that didn’t fit with the image I had of her in my head once I started writing … so I took the sister away and gave her two brothers instead. And despite having to rework five chapters, the writing flowed. It changed her experience, and gave her different insights and motivations. Also, it helped me make her a more interesting, more well-rounded character.
So lessons learned for me on characterization? Less (plotting) is more. Make sure there are quirks, and exploit them. Don’t write boring characters — make their lives difficult (messy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and downright horrible if the story calls for it), so they have lots to work with as they move towards resolution. Don’t make them all look and feel the same (even if twins!), and definitely avoid starting all their names with the same letter (trust me, this happens).
And when they come whispering to you in your sleep, or while you’re driving/showering/cooking/sitting in a meeting…listen closely. Because no matter what direction you had planned for them, it’s quite possible they have a better idea.