Saturday, July 11, 2009

Characters and Direction

The responses to my last post really got me thinking about characters and their relation to a story.

Characters have always felt very real to me, as though they were my friends and not simply the creations of my imagination. I often discover that characters I designed as mere walk-ons will end up taking on greater importance as a story progresses. And I do feel that they have wills of their own, because when I submerge myself in them, I feel their voices and their desires more strongly than I do my authorial planning.

Often when I'm having trouble getting through a scene, I discover that what is missing is a deep sense of what one of the characters needs. Sometimes that missing point is a sense of the judgment of the point of view character, and other times it's the motivation of the other person in the conversation (as happened recently with the romantic lead in my novel).

I originally started writing short stories as a way to get to know characters who couldn't be point of view characters in the novels I was writing, but whom I wanted to know better. This means that when I first wrote short stories, they felt like vignette snippets from a larger piece of work, and I needed to do a lot of work to grasp the structure of a stand-alone short story. But I did find that going to the trouble of creating a voice for a character helped me to understand them better for the purposes of both the short story and the novel. My main bad guy from the Varin world, the Eminence Nekantor, became a completely different character when I got close enough to figure out precisely how he thinks. Now I find that I love a really challenging character voice - like the mentally ill Nekantor or the alien Rulii - even when it can take me an hour to get into the proper head space to write the voice fluently.

It can sometimes be difficult to know which character to use for the primary backbone of a story. Janice Hardy was the one who really drove the critical criterion home to me: it's a question of stakes. The primary point of view must belong to the person who has the most to gain or lose in the course of the story. So while dallying in other viewpoints can be instructive and help you to flesh out a story, it's not necessarily what will get the story written. To extend the backbone metaphor, if you don't have your backbone in the right place, it's hard to know where to hang the flesh so the body will actually work properly. I wrote about half of a novel believing that my backbone character was one person, and then found it petering out. Only some time later did I realize that I'd picked the wrong person. Now that I have the focus placed correctly, the outline of the story is clear to me from beginning to end, and I can't wait to write it.

Janice and I got talking after my last post about the question of letting a character take charge of the story's direction. She pointed out to me that what I had described as letting the story follow the character was somewhat misleading, because it could have been construed as meaning that the story had no direction and rambled on wherever the character wanted to go. Of course, I thought, that wasn't what I meant. Janice has a way of knowing precisely what the stakes of a story are, how to escalate them dramatically, and where and how she wants to bring the story to an end - but she's amazingly flexible about the details of how she gets there, and that's where she listens to where her characters want to go.

There are a lot of story markets out there that talk about how they look for "character driven" stories. This is opposed to "plot driven" stories. I find that if I don't care about a character, I don't care about the story. This is something different from disliking a character. I can hate them, as long as I care about what happens and whether they get what they want or not. The decisions the character makes, and the actions the character takes, must critically affect what happens in the story, particularly the final outcome. Yes, there's room for external influences - attacks, or natural disasters, or simple bad luck - but these have to be present in conjunction with the character's goals and drives, or the story will just feel like a lot of meaningless stuff happening.

The idea of goals and stakes for a character is independent of the choice of first or third person point of view, or degree of narrative distance. A story usually has a character trying to achieve something, or trying to make some kind of decision. The character is our guide to how to feel and understand the world in which he or she moves.

Love them or hate them, we need to care about our characters.


  1. great ideea! ill start thinking short stories for every important character along with their cv. i think this will help alot. thanks.
    -cristian ianos