I am lucky enough to be the moderator of a couple of writing communities. One is the Salt Lake City Writer’s Group and the other Open Vein Writing at Livejournal (yes we had this conversation in the last entry, it still exists, don’t knock it).
One of the primary questions that I ask other people is “how do you get to know your characters?”
Sometimes, the answers are awesome. Sometimes, people look at me like I’ve grown a second head. “What do you mean get to know the character? Won’t they tell me about themselves as I write the story?”
Every character is different. I think every writer knows that. Sometimes you go in knowing everything from favorite color to when they lost their virginity to when they’re going to die. And sometimes, they are a blank slate that you color on. But either way, I think it is so important to get to know your characters.
But why, you ask, is favorite color so important? Because colors are symbols. Because colors give us meaning. Is red a favorite color because your character likes power or because as a child, their favorite fruit was red apples? Why does it matter if your character likes sports? Because it changes the people they hang with, the way they talk. And yes, it matters what sports they like. If you have a character who likes football … it matters what kind of football they like.
What about how your character feels about infedelity? Teen pregnancy? Dogs vs. Cats? Divorce? All of these things matter to how a character is presented, how your character thinks about certain things.
Yes. Characters will surprise us. Yes, we’ll write entire drafts of novels before realizing that a character is say, bisexual instead of a lesbian and going to end up with someone completely different than initially assumed (I’m looking at you, Gina Case.) But characters and stories come alive when we get to know who they are as people. When we get to know who we are as people interacting with them. Because yes, as writers, we are having a relationship with these characters.
Weird, I know. But it’s true. So let me say it again.
We are in a relationship with our characters.
We fall in love, in lust. We hate and scorn and cry. We lecture. We listen. And if that’s not a relationship, I don’t know what is.
So do yourself a favor if you’re stuck. Take your character out for coffee. And by that, I mean a number of things. Take a journal, go sit and write from their persepctive. Have a conversation with them in a coffee shop. Write a short story. Pick a prompt off the internet and give them 500 words on the topic.
Get to know them. Over coffee, tea, wine, whatever.
I’ve been in an interesting quandary with this character I’ve been writing. She’s a successful actress who at first glance, might not quite be worthy of sympathy. In my first draft, the first time you met her, she was itching to get off the show she was working on, desperate for a week on vacation in Costa Rica, and while it was clear she was unhappy, no one really connected to the reasons why. That is on me. That is a writer thing.
But as I’ve been working through the character, and been given feedback, I keep coming across the same word: sympathetic. Why should we care about her? Why should the reader want her to leave the show she is working on? All of the questions have been valid. And yet, I keep sitting back because there has been an undercurrent of a question as the situation of the sexual harassment she is enduring is revealed: well, she’s made the choice to be in that situation. So again, why should it matter?
Over the past few months, I have definitely succeeded in making this character stronger and more well rounded as a human being. All of the things I’d sketched out initially in my head for character development have emerged in the telling of her tale. She’s gone from being an A-List Actress to being human. My writing group has been instrumental in that development and I thank them for it. But … the question still remains.
Even with the sexual harassment, there is an undercurrent of: did she ask for it? Is she making the choice to stay?
Is she sympathetic enough?
I think from a writer perspective, these are crucial questions. It’s my job to make my reader cheer when good things happen to good people. It’s my job to make my reader give a shit. But there is also this perspective that I’m haunted by – because to me, my characters are as human as I am. And shouldn’t we feel sympathy for a woman who is trapped in a situation where she is worried if she says “no” she will lose everything she has worked for?
So on the one hand, I’m walking the line of “Wait a minute!” And on the other, I’m wondering just how “sympathetic” I’m going to need to make this character. And what is staying with me is that (it feels like) the majority of the “sympathetic” comments are coming from my male counterparts while my female ones are missing Gina’s early strength and how tough she was to begin the story.
Last night, I opened her introduction and read it for the 9,000,000,000 time. I hated it. She wasn’t “sympathetic” enough and in my effort to turn her into a more human character, I found her walking a Diva line that is not who she is.
So what wins out?
I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.