Knowing Characters: Inside and Out

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Photo Credit: Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays, Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard), 1840, oil on board, Yale Center for British Art: DcoetzeeBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired  

In any kind of fiction, for authors to know their characters is essential because stories are (duh!) about characters. Plot, setting, themes, and narrative are all important, but they come out of who the characters are. The process authors take to know their characters really varies from author to author.

New authors are often told to create or find online a character dossier or character questionnaire like this one which forces them to create a character down to the last detail. There is sometimes, I think, an expectation that authors know these things about their characters even if they never make it into the actual book. An awesome writer’s group I belong to on Facebook recently had a series of posts related to these sort of character details, posing questions like “What’s your character’s favorite color?” and “What’s your character’s favorite drink?” These questions can certainly be helpful for an author to know a character, specially if that character is running through a series where he/she will appear many times in many books. But I often think they don’t tell the whole story.

My fiction is about characters who face their past so they can find their future. They face their personal past and their collective past, the historical era in which they live. I talked about this in my blog post for this year’s OWS CyCon blog tour. Because there are deeper issues that my characters have to face on their journey to finding their future through their past, I have to be selective about the sort of details that make up their character and discover who they are through the process of writing and rewriting.

Therefore, I rarely do character dossiers or questionnaires. When the posts went up in the Facebook group, I honestly couldn’t comment on them because I don’t know what drink or color Vivian Alderdice (the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series) prefers. These details were simply not important in my construction of Vivian as a character for the series. They may become important for the series later on and if they do, they will come up on their own. Vivian herself will tell me, in the writing and rewriting process, the answers to these questions if they become vital to the story and to her character. But until then, I feel like trying to impose this sort of detail onto Vivian  as a character would feel artificial and contrived.

Author Anais Nin wrote about this sort of selectivity in details in her book on writing, The Novel of the Future. For Nin, such details as what the character drinks or what he or she has in her closet do not add to the reader’s knowledge of the character and, in fact, take away from it. She describes here an example from one of her books:

“A reviewer said when I wrote Stella (novelette included in the collection Winter of Artifice): ‘Stella is not real because she does not go to the icebox for a snack.’ This kind of reality I take for granted and would distract me, the author or the reader, away from some other more important observation.” (Nin, location 846)

For Nin, authors need to use the sort of selectivity with character details that I spoke of earlier. It’s not about quantity, but quality:

“A concentrated lighting thrown on a few critical or intense moments will illumine and reveal more than a hundred details which dull our keenness, weary our vision.” (Nin, location 496-502)

So discovering who the character, whether over the span of one book or several, is, for authors and readers, a process of selectivity and focus.

From a more psychological perspective, it took me quite a few drafts to get to know Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, Tales of Actaeon. I did several rewrites (not just editing and tinkering with scenes, but actual “throw most of it out and do it again” kind of rewrites) of the novel, all based on the kind of character Jake was evolving into. The details of his plight in coming of age during the last years of the 19th century come not only from his position as a twenty-one year old young man in 1898 but from who he is, what his psychological reality is, how he was raised, what he’s discovering about his beliefs and values, and what his relationships are. Small, concrete details do matter, like the fact that he’s an artist who favors wooded landscapes as his subjects. But, like Nin, I include less of the details that would prove to be irrelevant to who he is in the story, like what drink he prefers or what his favorite color is.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, due out in December, go here. And you can find out more about the series itself here.   

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes historical and contemporary fiction about characters who must examine their past and the time in which they live to move on to the future. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available for preorder. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

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