Tag Archives: creating character

Figuring out the questions

Every writer’s creative process differs from every other writer’s. It took me a long time to understand mine, to leave it alone, and let it do its thing. For the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aanora, trying to figure out how best to open to her and her story. Like every other part of the creative process, this part should not — cannot — be pushed.

One thing that always bothers me with the appearance of a new character is figuring out what her or his driving desire is in the story. Once I know that, more questions emerge, and the biggest is what happens now? A wise screenwriting teacher once said that after determining what the main character wants, then it’s time to ask just what that character will do to get it. This gives the writer an idea of the moral make-up of that character, if he’s passive or active, and how he approaches problems. But the question that comes next is where I’m struggling now: what are the obstacles/conflicts that the character must overcome in order to get what she wants?

As I began thinking about that, I had a shocking thought: Aanora was not the main character of the story! Oh, no. This was weird. Who was she, then? And who was the main character?


Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole At NASA APOD)

I suppose this revelation that Aanora wasn’t the main character could have totally derailed me and my thinking, but I just kept asking questions of my imagination and waited.  I do a lot of waiting during the early stages of developing a story. Sometimes I’ll work on something else, like blog posts or book reviews, or I’ll start doing what I sense could be related to the new story in terms of research.  Since this story seems to be heading into outer space rather than staying on earth, I’ve begun researching the Milky Way Galaxy. It boggles my mind how gigantic our galaxy is, and it’s only one in a universe full of galaxies. And I’ve also begun thinking about Aanora’s original home, her backstory.

Eventually, some answers bubbled out of my imagination. Aanora was a pivotal character, a VIC (very important character), and crucial to the story and that’s apparently why she appeared in my mind first.  She is also apparently crucial to the success of the captain and crew of the space ship that finds her. I know now that they had been sent to find her, to ask for her help in a diplomatic mission. So now I have more and more questions! Where is the space ship from? Who are the beings on the ship? Who is the captain and his crew? Are they peaceful? Warlike? Well, if they are seeking Aanora for diplomatic reasons, perhaps they are also diplomats? What is the diplomatic mission? Who does it involve? Am I going to be creating sentient aliens? In this dimension or Aanora’s? Oh, and by the way, who is the main character of this story?!

Writing an outer space story makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s new for me now — when I was in elementary school I wrote maybe ten or eleven outer space sci fi stories that my teacher read aloud to the class.  I really haven’t written anything with an outer space setting since. Two things I began yesterday when I was working on this story: 1) a Notes document that contains all my questions, and then the answers when they come to me; and 2) the beginning of a very rough outline which is to say a list of plot points.

I’ve never really written about my creative process in this way before — laying it out for the world to see. I’m very curious to see if it will help or hurt my process. It could supplement my Notes file, although I do welcome comments! And I’m hoping that this process with this new story will actually ease me back into work on the Perceval novels eventually.

Creating Character: Lisbeth Salander

Stieg Larsson has given the world an original, unique character who’s an individual and totally human: Lisbeth Salander. I finished the third book in his trilogy this morning: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I now see this trilogy as one long novel with three sections which is similar to how I think of my Perceval series. It’s possible to read each novel on its own, but to enjoy the true richness and depth of Lisbeth Salander and her predicament in Stockholm, it’s really better to read all three novels in order. (Recently, I read in a Publishers Lunch Deluxe newsletter from Publishers Marketplace that the manuscript Larsson left behind is NOT the fourth novel in the Salander series but the fifth which is the reason it probably will not be finished or published. Although anything’s possible.)

The best kind of characterization is a process, much like in real life meeting someone and getting to know him or her is a process. Needy people tend to dump on new acquaintances in an effort to create instant intimacy and/or friendship. Salander is the opposite. Yet, readers still need to get to know her in order to identify or relate to her, her life, her situation. Usually, a novel begins with the main character, but Larsson began this trilogy with a prologue introducing the Vangers, followed by Blomkvist’s libel trial. Blomkvist turns out to be a VIP in Salander’s life, despite his womanizing ways, and his situation in the first novel ties to Salander’s situation in two ways: men who hate women and use them; men who love and respect women. Salander herself comes into the story through Dragan Armansky and Milton Security — how he sees her, the way she has responded (or not) to him, to the jobs he gives her. We learn she’s a whiz researcher with a talent for hacking. We also see through Armansky’s eyes that she’s unconventional in her dress and behavior. He’s interested in her, curious to understand why she is the way she is, and through his curious eyes, the reader is curious. We see Lisbeth in a business meeting with Armansky and a client, and her abrupt manner, her antisocial responses. And yet, the next time we see her, she’s with her mother in a nursing home, and it’s a much different Lisbeth.

Larsson gives readers two extremes of Salander’s personality so that we can see she is a flawed human being. Something in her life has made her the way she is. Lisbeth herself generates curiosity about what that something was. The seed of her motivation is planted in the reader’s mind when her mother confuses Lisbeth with her sister in that scene in the nursing home.

As the story continues, Larsson introduces other elements of Lisbeth’s life and personality, always in response to a situation or another character. We see her through Blomkvist’s eyes, through her guardian’s eyes, through Frode’s eyes and the Vangers in the first novel. With the Vanger mystery solved she helps Blomkvist in a scheme that also helps her life situation, something the reader learns at the beginning of the second novel. Here we learn that Lisbeth regards morality as being mostly gray. But she gravitates toward the side of protecting the weak and those unable to protect themselves. We see her resourcefulness and determination. We also see her recklessness and rage. She does not ask for help to confront her father, she does it alone with dire results. Larsson again shows us Lisbeth through other’s eyes, but even more we see her through her mind, her thoughts.

By the third novel, we know she’s one tough cookie. In the third novel, though, she has changed. She allows people to help her — wary and reluctant, but she does. She has learned. Unfortunately, the beginning of the last novel focuses far more on Blomkvist and Berger, and is slow on action with Lisbeth, for good reason. Blomkvist works on her behalf and sets in motion the vehicle of Lisbeth’s triumph. As Lisbeth heals from her physical wounds, her psychic wounds are also healing as she begins to work with other people who want to help her. How do we know? Larsson shows us with her thoughts, with her actions. Characterization best serves characters and the story when the writer accomplishes it through action and point of view, giving it depth by including the responses of other characters.

Lisbeth and Blomkvist are almost, almost two sides of the same coin. They are each investigators, researchers, committed to exposing wrongs. They make a great team, each bringing different talents to the task. I applaud Larsson for staying away from a “Hollywood” ending to this trilogy, although he may have had other things in mind for subsequent Salander/Blomkvist adventures. I’m glad that they are friends. I think, knowing how loyal these two characters can be to the friends they care about, they will always be friends.