Getting to Know…Characters

Characters are mysteries when they first appear.  I need to discover their backgrounds, personalities and motivations, but as with real people, it takes time and effort to get to know them.  I have my ways to pry from them the essential information, e.g. what is their emotional vulnerability?  Or what is their biggest fear?  What do they want?  Who are they?

I begin with a list of questions of the basics and write the answers fast without thinking too much about it in order to disengage the left side of my brain (the logical, rational side) and open up the possibility of contradictions in a personality or behavior.  I want to discover beautiful incongruities.  I imagine this exercise as a conversation between me and the character.  The character sits next to me as I type or write the answers out longhand.  The character can be forthright (rare), coy, flirtatious, subdued, evasive (often), etc.  That initial reaction gives me a glimpse into his or her personality.

What are the questions?  Name, place of birth, birth date (I like to also include astrological sign and Chinese birth signs which often conflict but can give more insight into personality), physical appearance, family, schooling, interests, present living situation, dreams, likes, dislikes, etc.  Any questions that stop or block me I leave to answer later.  I have another set of questions — a dossier — I use to supplement the character questions and use it to “interview” the character rather than a friendly social conversation.

For Evan Quinn, his name stopped me.  I had no idea what it was.  Or the rest of his family.  I knew only that his father (a poet) and his father’s best friend (a composer) would figure prominently in his life.  Naming him, his family, his father’s best friend and his family, and creating family trees for the two families took about six months.  As necessary, I used “stand-in” names in order to continue to write.  As with the naming of a baby, what name a character carries reflects his or her personality and is important.

Sometimes details emerge that aren’t covered in my character questions or dossier.  For example, as I worked through several drafts of Perceval, I realized that I needed to think about giving both Randall Quinn (Evan’s father) and Joseph Caine (Randall’s best friend) publication or performance credits, i.e. a list of works.  Randall’s publication credits required no research.  However, I researched composers and how their works are listed, creating a list for Caine in the process, trying to give each piece of music a mini-history and some relation to Evan’s life.  As Caine’s list grew, I realized Evan was closer to Caine and his music than he was to his father and his writing.  Caine would be Evan’s godfather and mentor.  Randall Quinn and Joseph Caine would be rivals for influence of Evan and his life.

Usually before I begin writing the first draft, I try to complete the characterization questions for the main character, his or her adversary, and the major secondary characters.  This is not written in stone.  Writing the characters is also part of the process of getting to know them, putting them in situations, “talking” to the people around them, seeing how they behave, what they say.  Characters are as unpredictable as real people, and they can change as the story develops.  It’s important that I remain open to the possibilities and let the characters speak and act for themselves.

I have followed this method for the first two novels in the Perceval series, but for the third novel, I decided to experiment with the process and let the characters reveal themselves to me, in their own time and way, as I wrote the first draft.  That is, the characters new to the story, not the established characters.  I meet them as Evan (or Sofia) meets them.  After I finish the first draft, I’ll probably converse with and interview each of the new characters, ask my questions, to fill in any holes or dig deeper into their motivations and desires for subsequent drafts.

Each of the established characters develops in each novel of the series.  Evan Quinn, the main character, learns and grows the most over the course of the five novels, while the other characters support his development as well as make changes and grow in their lives as they participate in the story. 

I enjoy spending time with these people and in their world….


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