Character Design and Discovery (CHAR 101)

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 2,403

Talking a bit about how I come up with characters today.

I’ve got an agenda here; namely, I want to be able to talk about the characters I’m working with, but in order to do that I’ve got to talk about the process first, so any readership I have isn’t left in the dark.

I’ve heard writers talk before about how they don’t like to think of themselves as creating characters, but rather discovering characters that were already there, and using them. I normally hate this kind of stuff, it reeks of pretentious artsy-types and squishy thinking. But, in this case, there’s definitely something to that way of thinking.

When I create a character, there are definitely elements of discovery to it. Normally, I’ll end up creating a vague outline of what there character is: a very general personality. You can always tell the mediocre fiction writers because normally stop here. Their characters aren’t completely flat, but they don’t have any depth either. They tend to have only one emotional state, and one frame of speaking, and repeat the same things over and over in dialog. They feel like bit characters—they’ve been drawn using only one crayon, with the only degrees of changing being whether the author was pressing down normal-hard of really hard. Another telltale sign is that you’ll see characters pop up that just appear to be there for no reason whatsoever. They’ll typically have their moment in the sun for two pages in one chapter, and then vanish into the background, doomed to float spectrally behind the rest of the cast and pop in for one unimportant line of dialog here and there again. This is because when the author came up with the character, it was just the character—the personality—and not a role for that character to play.

When I come up with the beginnings of a character, I only come up with the vague outline of a personality that I came up with before, and I also come up with a role for that character to play. If I can’t come up with one on the spot, I normally put the character on hold until I have a clear purpose for them. Never include a character that has no purpose in the final product of the book, because the reader will be able to tell. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t create characters spontaneously. A writer’s instinct is a powerful thing, and some of my favorite characters have been throwaway cast that I added into a story on whimsy. Some of them were weeded out as unnecessary. Others turned out to be some of the finest characters I’ve ever made. But be flippant about it in the drafting process; if a flippantly made character is still flippant by the time you’re submitting to publishing houses, nix the poor sucker.)

At this point, I’ve got the two of the three most important parts of the character down—purpose and overarching personality. After this comes the discovery. There are any numbers of ways to do this: you could play the what-if game, or write little short stories involving the character, or write an imaginary interview with the character. I’ve heard it all, tried them all, and find all of them useful to varying degrees. But honestly, I don’t necessarily find any of them to be the final answer.  To put what I do in the most succinct way possible, I do on instinct.

An aside: The writer’s instinct is an important part of the process which can’t be ignored but also, sadly, can’t be taught. Having a good sense of aesthetic and character are indispensable to a writer, both in character development and other things. If you don’t have them, don’t despair, they can’t be developed. You’ll find some say ‘read, read, read’ and others say ‘write, write, write.’ I say ‘read, listen, observe, write, sing, speak, do things as well as you possibly can do them.’ Explore other art forms, look at Rembrandt, listen to Mozart, read a Calvin & Hobbes comic. Form and beauty are all around you—if you stop and pay attention to it, you can learn how to emulate it. And don’t be a genre snob, or a form snob. Go outside your comfort zone to see things you don’t necessarily appreciate as much. If you like Bach, listen to some Barenaked Ladies. If you are all into Ghost in the Shell, go read some classic lit. If you like to watch American Idol, go rent an old, black-and-white silent movie. But remember that nothing gets done if you don’t practice either, pay attention, then write while you do it.

Aside over: when I go with instinct, it mostly takes the form of finding out what kind of character is most appropriate to the story I’m trying to tell. The plot will shape the character—if you know what you need the character to do, make sure you’ve created a character that would do it. If your character doesn’t fit your story, you’ll have to fight the entire way through to get the character to behave. But keep in mind that the character will also shape the plot—if you’re having to force your creation to do something directly out of character, perhaps your plot needs to change. There’s a balance here. Eventually, if you’re doing it right, your characters will develop personalities of their own and start guiding you in this process. If they have too much freedom, you’ll never have a story because they don’t cooperate, but if you don’t let them muck about and play, you’ll kill them, and lifeless characters destroy a book faster than a disgruntled review columnist.

It’s much like pruning a tree: you have an image of what you want the tree to look like, but you can’t just force the tree to look like that image. You’ll cut off too many branches and leaves, and kill the poor thing. But if you just let it grow unchecked, you’ll have some monstrosity that doesn’t look good, feel good, or fit anywhere in your story.

Again with the instinct: if you do it right, you’ll know. You’ll be able to work with the character to tell the story, instead of just forcing pieces about on a chess board. Things will start to work, narrative connections will start to flow, and you’ll write better without even having to try. The character will, in as much as a technically non-existent person is able, get to know you, and the vice versa will happen as well. And sometime down the road, probably years after the novel is published and you’ve moved on to other projects, you’ll feel like you finally know the character well.

And, as a final note, sometime in this whole process the character gets a name. Names are important—I’m going to swear by that till the day I die. They help define a character. Not in the artsy way, like, someone named Brian (which means ‘defender’) will be stalwart and strong, but in a much more subtle way. Sometimes the names will just happen, and be built into the character from ground zero. Other times they’ll take forever to nail down, and you’ll have the entire groundwork for a character worked out prior to naming. I always find that I have a name before I the character starts revealing details to me. I’m not sure why, but it always seems to me that it’s when a character first gets a name that they start feeling more alive to me. The name is what lets them talk back.

The name of a character is a character’s life.

Paper or Binary?

I’ve been thinking about manuscripts lately. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how computers have destroyed them.

I went to the Pierpont Morgan Library over Thanksgiving break several months ago. It’s basically the library and mansion of an old wallstreet baron (for those who don’t know who Pierpont Morgan was), converted into a museum showcasing all the stuff he has. There’s a lot of it: beautiful old hard-bound books of a quality that just doesn’t happen any more, and priceless pieces of art, and orthodox iconography. But more than anything else, it was the original manuscripts that fascinated me.

They had them in glass cases, old manuscripts of books that everyone knows at the time. They cycled what was on display, and so I found myself on the day that I went looking at the yellowing pages of The Picture of Dorian Grey, the original ink-marking made by Oscar Wild himself, on the actual pages. The script was elegant and cursive, obviously written with a fine-nib pen. There were some of the original essays written by Mark Twain, and some of Beethoven’s handwritten scores, the writing of the later fierce and jagged with angry little notes stabbed onto the pages.

There was something powerful about being in the manuscript room, as if there was some sort of physical presence to the paper that was much more powerful than just the mass of the pages on their own. It was like being able to share in genius.

My problem is, of course, that I don’t write on paper. My hand writing isn’t elegant. It isn’t even illegible, because at least with illegible writing you can claim a creative style. Mine is simply unsteady and awkward, like a third grader just learning the shapes of the letters. Not the writing suited to manuscripts. And I can’t even write very well on paper, either: my mind has synced with the feel of a keyboard, and I’ve never managed to reprogram it to work with anything else. When I try to shift to paper, the quality of my writing goes perceptibly down. It’s no fun whatsoever.

I’ve been fully raised on computers, and can’t manage to bring myself to that previous time where people wrote by hand. There aren’t going to be any manuscripts for me. There aren’t going to be manuscripts for hundreds of people in the coming generations. The keyboard has taken over.

Not only that, but even typewriters are outdated. The hard work of millions of people all over the world exits only as streams of binary: ones and zeros. There will be no physical record of the process of writing, only the final product.

Now, I should say: I’m a technical boy. I believe in computers, and in technology in general with a fierce intensity. They do make life better. But there is a cost, and the presence of manuscripts is one of them. I know not all authors are capitulating to this as easily as I am: Neil Gaiman, for instance, writes his manuscripts with quill and ink, by hand. Lots of poets I know go to great lengths to write things out longhand, just because it feels weird to them to write poetry on a computer. But for lots of us authors, especially the fiction writers, manuscripts are things of the past.

Every once in a while, I’ll buy a comp-book, or open my nice journal, and start writing something from the beginning out of admiration for those manuscripts I saw at the Morgan Peirpont Library. Truthfully, I would love to see one with my name on it in someone else’s famed collection one day. But it doesn’t work: not only because I’m lazy, but because I just don’t write well with a pen. I’m disorganized, and lose my comp-books, and things just don’t work.

Mostly, though, I wonder what’s going to replace the comp-book. Perhaps it’s what I’m doing right now—the blog is the journal and manuscript of tomorrow. It fulfills many of the same things form a literary standpoint: shows the process that a work went through before publication. But it’s not the same, there’s no physical product to it. People aren’t going to file into a museum just to see the IBM R50 that David King wrote Artifice.EXE on. And this blog is data: easily copied and distributed.

No, I think that the internet has ended a generation completely. We’ve lost something.

But then again, we’ve gained a world of technology. We’ve gotten word processing, and connectivity, and Wikipedia. We’ve gained things we won’t even know about until after they’re established as part of our lives. Some people don’t think it was worth it, but personally, I have a lot of faith in the new things to come.

A Community of Poets

There was a time, oh, when I was somewhere between seventeen and eighteen, when I was an insufferable know-it-all. Now, this isn’t particularly unusual in a kid approaching the end of his teenage years, but I was probably marginally worse, because I was intelligent—or, at least, I got good grades and I was the son of a college professor, and it’s the same thing until you look closely.

Somehow, despite the fact that I already knew everything (a symptom of a condition I came to realize later was stupidity), I managed to figure out that I wanted to be a writer. It started slow, and mostly stemmed from the fact that I really liked telling stories (read: lies) and I always ended up getting A’s on my English papers, which wasn’t saying much. So I shoved the two haphazardly together, and started writing fiction. Everything I did, for most of that time, revolved around fiction. I wouldn’t go anywhere near anything else, especially poetry, which I disdained.

If I had to blame anyone besides myself, I suppose I’d blame the environment. I didn’t like poetry because I didn’t know what poetry was—there was no community there to show me the way. There no poets, or, if there were, they had no public community.  My total introduction to poetry was being forced to scan Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and if scansion has given birth to a poet even once in all of time, I’ll be impressed.

I recently discovered the community I had missed before. I wrote a poem—not quite on a whim, because I was taking a poetry class in the coming semester, and wanted to at least have tried my hand at it once before I walked in.

I enjoyed it. I wasn’t expecting to.

The class was nice—good fun was had by all. I didn’t realize what it had done to me, though, until the semester drew towards a close. When it had, I looked back and saw that I knew names. I had contacts. I would get e-mails saying, “Hullo, I just wrote this, do you like it?” and I would write back, “Yes indeed, but stanza 3 drags a bit. Perhaps make your language a little more nimble?”

Community got me, without me noticing until it was too late. I didn’t mind though; it was nice.

I had been dragged into appreciation. I listened to my fellow poets, and they listened to me. We respected one another, and our writing flourished. We had our place within one another—an encouraging word, a bit of advice. Poets need to bump heads with people sometimes, and fight for ideas. We provided the heads for each other to bump.

And we found our place among the greater community—the Poetry Universal. We were doing things. We weren’t just smearing words on a page, we were doing something that, if you squinted, looked like art.

Then the semester ended, and the e-mails stopped. No mode heads to bump. No more ego boosts when someone mentioned that they like what I had written. No more community.

And the words stopped coming.

Community is necessary for a poet, but it’s fragile. The challenge is to have one that’s not based around something other than what it ought to be. Community based on GPA will dry up once the 4.0’s roll around. Community based on location can get disturbed by anything from an earthquake to a noisy group of kids moving to the table next to yours.

Community—a lasting community—has to be based on something more permanent: the poetry itself, and the poets. Community must be rooted in community, a self-sustaining web of connection.

T.S. Elliot once wrote that this thing we call ‘art’ is not just a lump of all the individual works, but something larger. Each piece of poetry is woven in to fit into a great framework of the stuff. There isn’t a piece of art—of poetry—that doesn’t affect the whole.

The community is the same way. The poets—the integral parts of the community—we’re already here. In a very real sense, the community of poets is already in place, as permanent and strong as the whole of poetry itself.

We just need to reach out and find those connections. If we could…