What Makes a Character Tick?

During the class I recently finished teaching at UCSD Extension, I emphasized the fact that authors can’t simply have their characters act and react as the story and plot require, but that they must create the characters in such a way that the characters have no choice but to act or react as they do.

This was brought home to me by John Morgan Wilson when he reviewed a chapter of my book. (In fact, he was repeating something that Meg Gardiner had pointed out to me during one of her critiques.) Both said that I was having my main character react as I needed her to react to further the story, not as she might have reacted on her own. Okay, I know that sounds ridiculous, since I am the author and I can make my characters act any way I choose, but the truth was, I hadn’t given proper consideration to how she might have acted on her own. She simply reacted as I deemed necessary.

My students were confused by this idea, but eventually saw the logic, and how taking a character’s true reactions into consideration could quickly strengthen their writing. An example: one student had a conversation between two older adults who had reentered the dating scene, meeting after connecting on Match.com. During the dialogue, the man asks the woman if she is married. She says she is a widow, but was separated from her husband at the time of his death. The writer went on with the conversation, never stopping (as an author) to consider the ramifications of that statement. Why had she and her husband separated after so many years? What had finally caused her to walk away? Knowing that, the author has new cards to deal into the game…will she be wary of the same things in a new relationship? For instance, what if she had found out that her husband, while being a wonderful husband and father in all other ways, was a conniving bastard at work who had cheated his way to position and wealth? Wouldn’t she then be concerned about anyone else she chose to date…to make sure that they were honest and wouldn’t cheat at anything? Given that, what difficulties would that create for a man who wants to get close to her, to get to know her? Suddenly, there is plenty of fodder for the story that the author hadn’t considered, and all because the author listened to his characters, rather than just put words in their mouths and accepted them.

Motivation is vital. Not just the motivation of the author, the requirements for the story, but the inner promptings of the characters. Get to know your characters. Let them tell you who you are. They will surprise you, and greatly strengthen your writing. One of the characters I wrote was supposed to be a minor character, the wife of a murdered man. But Mamie came into the story with such gusto that she demanded a larger role, and the story benefited from her enlarged presence.

While you have to plan your story, be open to surprises from your characters. After all, you’ve created them. Let them grow as necessary.

The Interview Process: Open Yourself to Surprises

I gave an assignment this week that sent my students into a most unexpected spiral. Their task was to conduct character interviews, one with each of two characters they were creating. This turned out to be much more challenging for them than I had imagined. In the past, students have caught on quickly to the idea; not so this week.

The idea of the interview is for the author to get to know a character. When we create characters and decide who they are, what they look like, and what they will do in the story, we leave no room for surprise. We are dictating everything about the characters, and risk making those characters flat and predictable.

But through the process of interviewing our characters, we can open ourselves to surprise. We can learn things about our characters that might be useful in the story, facets that will add depth and color to our characters.

Interview your characters and make them answer your questions. You’ll know the answers, of course, but in the process of interviewing, you may come up with some questions about aspects of that character that you had never considered. Perhaps you have a character who is a photographer. She is a photographer because you need her to be so for the story. But after interviewing, you may find out that she became a photographer because she was cripplingly shy as a child and finally discovered, in high school, that she could participate in activities if she hid behind a camera, present but unseen. This insight might come in handy later in your story when this character has to step forward and make a stand (as you had already planned). It would give both you and the reader insight into the inner struggle before she acts, giving greater depth to the action and greater interest for the reader.

That is just one example of how sitting down and interviewing your characters can lead to bits of character knowledge that can strengthen your story and your writing. If you simply say that characters “just are,” you lose the chance to be surprised. Talk to your characters, and never let them off the hook with the difficult questions. You’ll grow as a writer and your characters will live.