Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's Alive!!

So, last week I ended up having to put aside the Theo Four manuscript and instead pick up my Theodosia Four journal. For the week prior to that, I had been pushing the characters around on the page and it felt just like a four year old pushing peas around the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. Nothing pretty was happening.

I have to say, I so admire people who can fly into the mist and just write. Not knowing much about their characters or their stories, they simply begin, knowing they will discover these things on the page.

I don’t seem to be able to do that. Instead, I had to regroup and spend the last week journaling all my characters’ histories. I need to know who they are and what life events have shaped them before they will come alive for me on the page. And since so much of that is backstory, it doesn’t seem to emerge in the actual writing of the book. Nor do I seem to be able to make them do anything on the page except walk woodenly across the stage until I know them better.

But all that journaling? I inevitably get frustrated along the way and feel like I’m spinning my wheels or procrastinating or being overindulgent of my process.

Except, as I journal these people, they begin to come alive for me. At first inception, they are mere stick drawings, a few bare lines in black and white, little more than placeholders. Sometimes I know so little about them that I can’t even define what they want within the story, or what their goals might be.

That’s when I begin to root around in their past, digging through their history in an attempt to understand them. For example, I have an elderly gentleman in this book, and I ended up printing out a timeline of British history from 1830 to 1900 so I could see what skirmishes and battles and experiences would have shaped him. After all, the events going on around us shape who we are as people, whether we live through a Great Depression, survive 70’s disco music, or enter the job market at one of the worst times in history—all these things shape our outlook on life. If I’m writing a novel that takes place in a different time, then it makes sense that I need to understand which historical events shaped my characters.

This is where I actually ‘draw’ my characters, only using words instead of lines. The form and shape and texture begins to show up. Once I have all this stuff, the character’s context and worldview, I can then go in and do the detail work, the stuff that will show up on the page. What are this character’s emotional wounds? His motivations? His goals? Why does he want that? What personal events and circumstances have combined with the broad strokes of history to shape him?

When I know that, I know how he will react to the people and events around him. How he will respond to Theodosia, the magic swirling around them, how he holds his head or looks down his nose, or whether he responds with disdain or respect.

And then a really cool thing happens, a bit of magic akin to when the wooden Pinocchio became a real boy. The character begins to take on attributes that I haven’t designed for him. He begins to become a real person in his own right until finally, he becomes so real and fully dimensional that he gets up off the page and walks into the book, finally a real person.

Which is a long way of sheepishly confessing that I guess all that journaling time isn’t wasted after all.

How do your characters become real to you? What tricks do you use to b ring them to life, both for yourself and your readers?


Blaze said...

Thanks for the tremendous validation! I, too, spend a lot of time journaling & thinking (& journaling some more) when 'giving birth' to my characters! And how delighted I am when my characters get to the point where they actually surprise me with their actions & dialogue! Throughout this process, I especially focus on their relationships with the those around them - authority (parents, teachers), the opposite gender, the same gender, friends & foes. I love having my characters play off one another, just like we do!

Robin L said...

Blaze, that's one of my very favorite moments in writing, when the characters start surprising me by having their own mind. Love that!