Character Origins

I’m in the mood to think—and write—about characters. More specifically, what’s on my mind is the matter of developing characters. Is it author choice, or does the character arrive on-page and begin dictating things, or are there negotiations between end points?

I’ve heard various people muse on different aspects. One author may aver characters and stories come from story gods (or other external but intangible sources) and the writer merely serves as the channel or perhaps embarks upon a trip of discovery. Others invest time in developing characters, perhaps completing forms or filling pages with descriptive information as they create the character—who then serves their purposes in the story.

And some of us fall in between.

Coming up with characters can be considered to resemble sculpting. Some sculptures are built up out of materials (clay, bicycle chains) and others formed through subtraction (carving stone or wood).

Those analogies work for me, for the most part. A number of my characters are built up. They serve certain needs, and I try to make sure they’re as fully rounded as possible (and likewise try to convey that on the page, sometimes more successfully than others). Other characters involve discovering things about them, learning who they are and who they’re not as I subtract extraneous material to find their shape. And still other times it’s a negotiation process where I offer a deal, they counter, and maybe we can find a way to meet both of our needs.

Then again, sometimes it feels as though my main characters just like to boss me around. They’ll tell me if I get things really right—most of the time. They’ll drag their feet or roll their eyes when I’m trying to make them do things that don’t fit—most of the time. Occasionally, they go along pretending only to say “about time” or the equivalent when I finally figure out I’ve been going in the wrong direction. There’s one particular story I’ve started at least four times and still haven’t gotten it to work. Twice the characters let me get quite far along before things fell apart. I think the latest start will work, but the key pov character hasn’t decided whether to tell the story 1st pov or 3rd (and in this case, given the trouble I’ve had, I’m going to defer to her).

Because the thing is, when these characters are right they’re REALLY right.

And, for me at least, most of the time they’re the POV characters and/or the main characters (the two not necessarily being the same thing, after all).

I’ll give you an example of how this works out in practice, albeit with some details obscured for the sake of not spoiling things for anyone who actually reads this and starts following my work.

A number of years ago, I had a very vivid dream. A character was watching a particular pivotal moment in US history in full knowledge that, if all went according to plans, the moment would turn in a very different direction than it did in our reality.

I knew various things about that character—or I thought I did. She was an older woman named Janny (50s or 60s) and a tracker or otherwise very savvy in living in the wild.

I distinctly remember waking up thinking this could be really neat, but it was also going to require a lot of time and effort to do it right. At the time I was on a writing hiatus. The character accepted my decision. I thought.

A couple of months later, I happened to see an anthology call which generally fit the parameters of the dream world & character. Janny showed up in my head and insisted I write the story of the dream.

No, I told her, not happening. It’s too big for a short story.

Fine, she replied (or did she?), start here.

Next thing, I wrote a short story set 50 years earlier—Janny showed up, but as a supporting characters. Long story short, it didn’t make it into the anthology (though I got a very nice rejection letter)–which was just as well because I didn’t know enough then to realize what I was tackling.

Or how much I’d gotten wrong in that story.

Do I know now? Not necessarily—though I do know more.

For one—the character in my dream? Turned out to be an amalgamation of two characters, neither fully fitting the description and neither answering to the name of Janny. (Although one of the two does go by something close.)

It’s just as well I didn’t realize the full extent of my characters’ ambitions. Several more have slowly stepped out of the shadows and begun to share themselves with me.

In part because I’ve backed up. I’m starting at a beginning point—where a particular character makes a decision which sets her on the road to being part of this big story . . . assuming she survives long enough.

I haven’t written the story about the moment in the dream and probably won’t for a reasonably long time. The big tale has decided it wants to be made up of moments and developments. I’m telling it as a sequence of short stories or a serial novel — or a mix between those two (some installments work well as short stories, others not quite so well).

The main characters want to share their journey as well as the end destination. (If push comes to shove, I’ll admit I don’t actually know how the whole thing ends for once. I know the first and second turning points, but this will be three arcs / acts / serial novels and I don’t know the end of the third.)

Most of them don’t tell me when I’m getting things wrong, they just slow down and drag their feet. But I’m getting better at recognizing this and negotiating with them.

Because I want to know how this ends.

I can’t tell you . . . yet.

I can tell you when and where it starts—in June, 2019, when I will publish “Hollow Ghosts” the first installment in the Twisting the Border sequence. Come, pull up a chair and take a peek as one character takes the first step on the road to heroism . . . and infamy.

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