Monday, March 30, 2009

Developing characters, before or during

I think of what kind of person they’re going to be, but it isn’t until I start writing that I fully imagine what they’re like and begin to understand who they are. A lot is giving the a voice in dialogue as I begin to imagine the way people talk and quirks of their language and then quirks of the way they’re thinking, they begin to come to me, though I might have some notes before I started to write.

--Sue Miller

This description perfectly parallels my experience. I did some character sketches for my main characters before I started drafting in earnest, but for awhile they were little more than glass-eyed dolls that I moved around to act out the crude story I had at that point. And, like Miller describes, they started to make themselves real to me through their dialogue. I was writing dialogue to serve the plot, but over time the characters voices start to get more and more distinct.

At a certain point, for example, I noticed that one character was saying almost nothing active—just responding to what was around him in the most limited way he could get away with. And in that way I learned how wary and guarded he was. Which was something that was probably latent in the original character sketch but not so conscious for me until later.

That quirk of language told me about the quirks of thinking, which told me a lot more about who they really were, which then gave the story more depth so it became less and less crude as I went along.

I think I’ve referred in other posts to a previous attempt to write a novel, and back then I took the opposite approach—I filled notebooks full of character development exercises. I suppose they might have been useful for getting unstuck but as a planning tool, they just made me feel busy while I delayed the important work of adding sentences every day to my draft.

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