A writer friend and I were discussing characters today. She asked me how I make my characters’ voices unique. I had to stop and think about it for a while. I’ve mentioned this before, but I usually just see a character in my head and write them down. It’s not so much that I create them, rather, they find me.
Of course, that’s not a helpful answer, so I thought harder. In the post I linked above, I said I see characters as real people, but the question is, how do you get to know those people? Well, I get to know them by writing them. That’s the most unsatisfying answer ever, isn’t it? It’s the best one I’ve got though. I get an idea and write a couple chapters. I get a feel for the character.
Then I make a list of each character and their traits. What are their flaws? Their strengths? Their quirks? Do they have any scars? How did they get them? Do they chew pen caps? Are they sarcastic? Quick tempered? Easy going? I make a big list, then I make sure I write them in a manner that is consistent with those traits. Sometimes the character changes and morphs over the course of the story, or over the course of the drafts and I have to go back and reevaluate who I thought the character was. The more I write, the more I get to know them and how they would react to different situations.
I imagine having conversations with the characters. What would they say? How would they sound? How would they move as they talk? I observe people and combine different mannerisms into a single character. Then I write some more. Each draft rounds the characters out and adds more dimension, breathes life into them. It’s almost like inflating a balloon. You start with a flat piece of rubber or Mylar. As you pump air into it, it starts to take shape, until you have the finished product. Then it can float around Times Square, or wherever, knocking into buildings and creating all sorts of drama in your story like a runaway Snoopy balloon on Thanksgiving.
I read a blog once (and blast it, I can’t remember where. Yes, I just said “blast it.” That’s how I roll) that compared writing to drawing. An artist starts with a basic shape, then goes back and adds detail, then color, then more detail, until they have a final drawing. It’s the same with writing, especially with characters. I start with a short, red-headed, teenage girl, then I add her quick temper and determination. Part of the way through the draft, I realize she wears glasses. In the second draft I notice she has trust issues. In the third, I give her a scar on her right knee from a bicycle accident as a kid. Each draft adds detail and dimension.
I’m not saying I’m the best at creating good, memorable characters or anything, or even that I’m great, but when I go back and look at the first manuscript I wrote, it’s pretty plain I’m getting better. The more I write, the better I get. So that’s my advice. Keep writing, keep tweaking, keep adding that detail and listening to your characters. Listen hard enough and you’ll hear their voices. Write long enough and they’ll jump off the page.
What about you? What’s your process for writing characters? How do you inflate them?