Deb Blake asked:
Character depth has always been an issue for me, although I’m getting better at it (which probably explains why I’ve finally gotten published). How do you make your characters so REAL?
It happens through writing and rewriting. I know there are people who swear by those character sheets where you fill in the blanks, but that never works for me. I couldn’t tell you what color eyes most of my characters have because that has no impact on their stories or on their lives. If I thought about it, I could tell you their worst fears, but a lot of the time that’s not what the story is about. So for me, it’s writing the story and seeing how the character emerges.
If I had to analyze it, I’d say that you need develop a character in two directions–length and depth.
Length is character arc over the length of the story. She’s this character at the beginning, and then THIS happens and she changes as she fights her battles, and that leads to THIS happening and greater changes within her, which leads to THIS happening and so on until the end when she’s a completely different person from who was in the beginning. It’s the arc of those changes, how and why they happen, that creates a rounded character.
But depth is important, too, even though it doesn’t move like plot and character arc. The character’s stable life changes as the plot changes and she changes: her choices in friends, in living arrangements, in what she obsesses over, in what kind of dog she adopts, whatever; think of it as the wallpaper of her life, the patterns that surround her, so that as she moves through the plot, developing her character as the story lengthens, her relationships and choices shift and become clearer and more complex, deepening her character. The wallpaper becomes more detailed, if you will, giving her a richer background and a more rounded character.
I’m always surprised when I read a novel and realize that I have no idea what this character does for a living. Or no idea of where he lives and what that place looks like or what his or her relationships are with people who are not antagonists. A well-rounded character has a life that’s there on the page, not taking up a lot of real estate but present because that’s how life works. Nobody falls in love and then concentrates on that and that only 24/7 until he or she gets engaged. Nobody races to save the world without phoning home. Nobody fights the monster without keeping an eye out for his or her kid. The complications of life shape character, create boundaries and barriers that him or her three-dimensional. And that’s even before you get to how much weight we give to how other people see the character, which can’t be present if there aren’t other people in the cast besides the main combatants.
So how do you know about the character’s life wallpaper? A lot of it shows up while I’m doing early drafts, but I do a lot of discovery, too. Music and collage are big. Why does this song seem to be something she’d play over and over and this song something she wouldn’t even hear? Why do these three pictures of different women look like her to me, and these three other pictures of the same three different women not look like her? I like taking a photo that’s almost right and changing it until it is right–lengthening the face or changing the color of the hair–and I definitely like combining photos and drawings of different people to make a composite in my head. There’s a time while I’m writing that I call Sticky Time, which is when everything I see and hear seems to tell me something about the book and my protagonist: She’d like that dress I saw in a magazine, she’d love that song I just heard on TV, she’d say this to that scrap of conversation I over heard, and so on. Collage is particularly good for that, finding pictures, scrapbook paper, stuff that makes me think, “That’s her.”
But mostly it depends on those two major things: how her character arcs through the events of the plot, and how her world reflects who she is and how she changes. Story event and story world combined to create a dynamic character.
Edited to Add:
So I wrote this yesterday and then left it in draft form so I could give it a couple of hours before I came back to edit it. There are people in my life thwarting me at the moment, and I had to settle their hash (do not give me estimates for an air conditioner I do not want and omit the estimate for the oil tank that must be removed because you are WASTING MY TIME), and I had to clear some of the stuff out of the house, especially the living room which is now collage central and therefore is covered in small bit of paper, and there were a few other things, and the entire time I was just . . . ITCHY. Not externally, but mentally. I’ve been brainstorming this collaborative project with one of our collaborators (the other two are up to their asses in alligators), and we’re making great progress, talking about the world, and I know about my character, Catherine, aka Cat, a waitress/cat burglar in 1910, and since it’s a romance/adventure/fantasy, there’s her future guy, Harry, a gangster/undercover cop, and I know that there’s nothing magic about Cat, that she’s extremely down to earth except when she’s on a rooftop, very pragmatic, very young (another Mare), and that Harry’s not quite so young, rising fast in the force, and . . . I couldn’t get past that. I had pictures but they weren’t right. It made me itchy.
And the thing is, I know I won’t know these people until their story is finished. That’s just how it works. But there is thing that happens, something triggers something in my brain, and suddenly, they come alive and I can hear them talking and I know what they’re thinking, and the other people around them, and that’s the thing I have to get to. And it’s really hard because you don’t know what the trigger’s going to be. Pictures, yes, music, yes, could be anything, so you just have to keep open, sticky time, and pray that you get it.
Agents of SHIELD is really good this year, and the cold open for this week’s was truly brilliant, Jemma dressing to go to work to this peppy retro pop song and then she gets to work and it turns out . . . well, that’s a spoiler, but it was great. And the song was fun. So I bought it. No big deal, I’ll use it some day. Then for the last couple of nights I’ve been looking at pictures of people from 1910, trying to find somebody that looked like Cat, in the sense of personality not actual physical looks. I pulled a lot of stuff for her and for Harry while I was at it, but it just wasn’t right. Then tonight, restless as all hell, I clicked on the song, and bang, there it was. Obviously the lyrics are not right for 1910, but the sense is, and the bounce. There’s a lot of darkness in this story, and that’s what was screwing me up. Cat’s not dark. She doesn’t have enough imagination to be dark. She has no magic powers. She’s not the reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen or the long lost heir to a throne or anything but an ordinary waitress/cat burglar who needs to find a way to heat the church bell tower she’s been squatting in or she’ll freeze to death over the winter. All the dark magic that’s going on around her that the other women will be suiting up for, Cat just wants it out of her crypt because it’s going to blow her secret hideaway. She’s practical. If they had HGTV in 1910, Cat would have been calling them for HVAC advice. There no drama in Cat. But god help her, there’s plenty around her. And then that gave me Harry who lost about ten years in age and became her analog, the young cop who thinks he can do anything. I kept playing the song over and over and pulling pictures off the net to get my composite, different faces with the same personality because what I want isn’t what they look like, I don’t care what they look like, what I need is who they really are, what makes them bounce on the page.
Up above, I said I use music and collage. Cat’s theme is “God Help the Girl” by God Help the Girl (and thank you, SHIELD). Cat and Harry will look like this after they’ve been together for a couple of years:
But the way they are right now is a composite of these personalities/attitudes/worldviews:
Come on, how much fun is that?
Now, please God, let me keep them alive in my head until I can get their stories written.