Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Authors: Your Characters are Defined by the Actions they Take

I've never been big on plotting and planning. I know the major points of my story, and I know the main details about my characters, but beyond that, I just. can't. plot. any. further. I have to dive into the story and get going. It's like the story details "reveal" themselves to me as I get further and further (this is why I totally get what E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”)

So. I recently picked up my copy of The Story Book by David Baboulene (a book I haven't looked at in a long time, and only read parts of the first time I went through it), and I found something that made TOTAL SENSE to me!

"... Writers are advised to make a list of their characters and what they are like. The literature tells you to 'know them' as if they are family. To define them from birth -- their childhood experiences, their schools, their house moves, their siblings -- everything. For each one we must think long and hard about what these people are like as 'characters', and list their traits and attributes, from their physical characteristics to their likes, dislikes, allergies, toughness, weaknesses, ancestors; how they feel about the other characters around them, what their pose is towards life events, what they eat, what sort of sex they like, and so on. Again, this is useful, and I'm not saying you shouldn't do it, but these activities should come with a health warning: characters that are fixed in advance can badly damage your plot!

You cannot possibly define your characters before you know what they are going to do.

Only the actions your protagonist takes -- specifically those actions taken under pressure and when facing dilemma -- will define his character ..."

Yay! So there ISN'T something wrong with me for being unable to write out every single detail there is to know about my characters BEFORE I start the story. It MAKES SENSE for me to "release" the characters into the story and to FIND OUT what kind of characters they are by the way they interact with the plot and each other.

Anyone else think this makes sense too? ;-)

PS - I totally recommend The Story Book. All the stuff about subtext and knowledge gaps and conflict triangulations is really helpful. (Oh, and it's all delivered with a dash of humour. I like that ;-) )


Natalie Aguirre said...

Glad to know there isn't something wrong with me either. Because I can't do that either. Thanks for the book recommendation.

Stephen Tremp said...

Acton and consequences. And I just placed The Story Book on my TBR list.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

We each have to do what works for us. I see his point and think you can combine those - give a character a past and then drop him in the story and see what he does.

Andrew Leon said...

Mostly, those details don't matter, like what you're character ate for breakfast. Unless they help you, as the author, form the character in your mind, it's not something to worry about.

Cathy Keaton said...

I forgot to compliment you on your new blog header! It's great.

Yeah, I agree with this idea that your characters should grow organically through the development of the story. The story, assuming it is a character-driven story, will be the means by which you will relay the characters to the reader. Of course, this means the characters need to be like real people, people who change depending on the events they experience as they live their lives.

Cally Jackson said...

Makes total sense to me! I find leaving a bit of flexibility helpful. As long as once your characters have 'revealed' themselves to you, they stay consistent, it doesn't matter whether that's before you start writing or during. :-)