Interviews, Difference, And Water Glasses

Three things about building characters

Well, we survived NaNo and 2019, I think that calls for a celebration. Or at least a deep breath before we have to pull our blasters and get back to work.

So, today let’s talk about… characters!

Having imaginary people live in your head is disorienting sometimes, especially when they start behaving in ways you didn’t expect and quite frankly don’t like or agree with. (See: Dru Anderson’s Southern upbringing, Japhrimel’s non-human views on “truth”, Tristan d’Arcenne’s assault on his beloved Vianne, anything to do with Perry—the list goes on and on.)

So here’s three things that, while they may not make having imaginary people in your head easier, they certainly help with the magical feat of writing them into life.

What’s the glass of water?

Stuck on a character’s actions? Does this imaginary person seem flat and lifeless? Fear not, my friend, there’s a simple way to inject life into even the most moribund character-corpse.

Figure out their glass of water.

All right, I’ll back up a second. Every character in a story, as Vonnegut famously observed, has to want something, even if it’s something as simple as a glass of water. Ask yourself this: what does this imaginary person want more than anything? What is their overarching desire, and what’s their desire in this scene? Listing what each character in a scene wants is a great way to discover where the narrative tension should be situated, and keeping “this person wants X, that person says they want Y but really wants Z and will kill to get it” in the back of your head while revising can help you cut extraneous matters and get right to the emotional heart of a scene.

Even just articulating what each character wants quietly to yourself will work wonders for the clarity and rhythm of your writing. Take a few seconds—or minutes—to figure out what the glass of water is—yes, even for the secondary characters.

Let them be different.

You are not your characters. Sure, you can draw on your own life experience (and, let’s face it, that of everyone around you because writers are giant maws, everything feeds the work) or use a character as a way of doing something you never would in real life (see: gun battles and punching assholes at random) or even use a character/story to work out your own psychological issues or wish fulfillment. (See: Twilight.)

But really, it’s a lot more complex, challenging, and fun when you let your characters be who they are. It’s an exercise in focused, critical empathy, and it’s particularly useful in the case of villains. A villain or antagonist isn’t simply a means of letting one’s id or one’s particular hobbyhorses run riot; first and foremost they must serve the story, not you.

So let your characters be different than your own sweet self. Let them do things you would never dream of, let them, like children, be true to themselves instead of what you think they should be. Your work will be much richer if you don’t stick to recycling your own tired self-insertions; let your heroes be people you don’t necessarily think are heroic and let your villains be people you don’t necessarily think are bad.

And when reviewers make the mistake of attributing a protagonist’s views or upbringing or a villain’s hatreds to your own sweet self, hold your tongue and go back to work. Their issues (and their need to stir shit on the internet) are not your problem.

Shit-stirrers gonna shit-stir. You’re a writer and have writing to do.

Interview them. With a time limit.

Characters, like real people, love to talk about themselves. Just like one of the best things you can do for your grasp of dialogue is eavesdrop with a notebook in a public place (mall, bar, library) and one of the best things you can do for your understanding of a subject/career is find an expert, buy them a beverage, and listen to them, the best way to get to know a character is to interview them.

Make a list of questions—what was your childhood like, why are you so in love with X, why did you do Y, how do you feel about Z, what’s your favorite colour—and listen to their answers. Write them down and refer to them later when you want to get back into writing this particular person’s viewpoint or actions.

The critical second piece to this is set a time limit. I find a twenty-minute character interview works wonders. It’s just long enough for me to get a sense of who this person is, but not so long that I waste time and mistake the effort of what is, in essence, a mental trick (I might almost say “mental masturbation in service to a good cause”) for the effort of actually writing the damn story.

There are always those writers who get so involved with building a world that they forget to actually, well, write. Part of that is that it’s easy to say “I’m still doing worldbuilding/research” and you still get the pat on the head and the cookie while not having to risk anything on writing a story that can, after all, be critiqued or rejected. A writer can fool themselves into thinking it’s safer to do character interviews/sheets and settings vignettes than actually write the damn story/play/novel, and get caught in what I call the Self Help Loop—again, mistaking the small effort of reading or faffing about for the larger, less sexy, and sometimes numbing effort of actually doing the damn work.

So set your timer and ask your character your questions. They’ll be absolutely brimming with the desire to speak—or if they’re not, think about why until the timer rings.

And then, get back to writing.

Of course any character, like any story, might hold a few specific authorly hallmarks. After all, you’re the filter/sieve/grinder this story is coming through; it stands to reason it will take the particular shape of your filter/sieve/grinder/obsessions. Certain kinds of characters will be easier for you to write than others. Certain stories and characters will appeal to you more. And that’s okay—after all, the stories lined up in your head chose you, out of everyone on earth, because they want your hands on the keyboard.

Let them be who they are, and I promise you’ll reap the rewards. Above all (say it with me)…

…keep writing.

Please note: In the very near future, one writing post a month will be free and the rest, as well as an open thread on a to-be-determined weekday, will be for paid subscribers. Don't worry, I’ll let you know when this happens!