I’m taking a break from retelling my Libya adventures for tonight. I’ll get back to it, but this weekend my thoughts have been about characters, and how the stories we write need to catch them in the act of living their lives. In a previous post, I wrote about listening to the point of view character’s voice, and using that to color your prose. A teenage girl will observe and frame things differently from a business man, or a grandmother who has lived a long life, or a cold-blooded killer (unless the teenage girl is the killer).
One of the hardest things to do to give your characters a sense of reality is to give the impression that we are just passing through their life. That they didn’t just come into being, but are out there somewhere, and we just happened to intersect with them for the duration of the story. The most enduring characters do feel exactly that real–as if they were people you could meet on the street, or have coffee with, or invite to your house for dinner. (Or maybe not, depending on who they are.)
But how do you do that without spending a lot of time on backstory? How do we catch characters in the act of living their lives?
I don’t have a magic bullet answer. But I’ve always felt that every character who appears in a story deserves to have their own life–even if none of it is ever revealed. The reason they need to have their life, is because their life experiences will color everything they do and say.
I think of it this way… If you’ve been following my Libya reminisces, you know I’m the oldest of a number of siblings. The exact number is 5. We grew up in the same household, but as we became adults we chose different paths and had different experiences. When we come together, we have a shared sense of family, but we view it through the lens of our experiences. I have four wonderful brothers and sisters. They’re incredible people. But we’re all very different, and put into a crisis situation, most of us would react differently.
So, back to the writing. In my current novel-in-progress, I’m actively juggling twenty-two characters. Some people might call it suicide to have to track so many–there are actually a good many more, but those are the ones who are appearing in this book. With so many people, they need to be distinct enough to be visible and credible on the page.
Movies actually do this very well. The pace of most movies is such that they are forced to catch a character in the act of living their life. Backstory comes in the course of the story, and only if it is necessary to move the plot along. You could learn a lot from watching the movies.
So how do I manage to keep track of so many characters, and make each one an individual? First, they each have their own profile, with all their vital statistics, as well as their key life moments up to the start of the story. As I begin writing, I refer to these profiles a lot. And second, I have a list of the cast of characters, including their relationship to my protagonist and each other.
The rest evolves as the story progresses. Am I successful at doing it? So far, I think yes, because the people who read a partial early draft keep asking me how various characters are doing, which means they are distinguished as unique in their eyes.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. Happy writing.