A little while ago, a writer friend and I met for coffee and got to talking about characterization. Recently, Lisa has been posting on the subject, Getting to Know You being my favorite so far.
The way I approach character, it's not quite as structured as the 'Dossier' approach, where you know your main folks' shoe size and taste in breakfast cereals before you start. Nor is it quite so fey as the 'Found Object' approach, where folks show up on stage and gradually reveal themselves, though of the two, it's more the latter.
What I do, I start with what I need and spin it back. In other words, based on what I need this character to do, what sort of person are they? And go from there.
In Poison Door, I needed a young girl to be out in the middle of the night, where she witnesses a gangland murder. Eleven to thirteen was about the right age: old enough to credibly handle the crises I threw at her but young enough that boys and liquor and so on were... interesting, but still in the future.
What kind of twelve year old runs around the city by herself in the middle of the night? A dangerously underparented one. Her homelife wouldn't be anything flash. In fact, it'd be the sort of thing to make her want to stay out. Her mum was a full-blown alcoholic and addict, at which point the home life practically wrote itself.
So did the hope: Michelle had a ringside view of the trouble that came with guys and liquor and all the stuff the older street kids got up to after dark. She saw pregnancy, substance abuse and overdose take kids like her, one after the other. Unlike some other kids in the same situation, this one had a gritty determination to steer clear of that stuff, to keep her head down and stay in school long enough to grab a normal life. Assuming she can survive the rest of the week.
By the time I was done writing, I could tell you about Michelle's favorite subjects in school, her taste in clothes, movies and cute guys. Whatever you wanted to ask. But at the start, I knew I had a young girl, alone in the dark, watching horror unfold in front of her eyes. And being seen by the killers. Everything else unfolded as I spun it back.
Why a girl? Why Michelle? Well, that's how she showed up. Bit of a 'found object' that way.
Which sort of brings me around to Grandkid Days. For me, I start writing with an event or situation, the kind of day you want to tell your grandkids about.
By this I mean that the events in a story should be seminal in the lives of their characters, turning points in their lives or, at the very least, total red-letter days:
I ever tell you kids about the time bad guys locked up Father Christmas and I stepped in to do his job? (Hogfather, Terry Pratchett)
I ever tell you about the time I met my long-lost dad and he drew me into a war with the gods? (American Gods, Neil Gaiman)
You kids ever hear about how I met your father? I'd pricked my finger on a spinning wheel and fallen into an enchanted sleep... (Sleeping Beauty)
The War? Let me tell you kids, the war was hell, but even worse was what came after... (Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)
I'll never forget the day our little island first got the vote. Those were fun times! (The Sufferage of Elvira, V.S. Naipaul)
Some characters, Jack Reacher and James Bond come to mind, would have a lot of colorful stories. Some, say Hamlet and Macbeth, would have only one. And yeah, they'd probably have some trouble telling it, seeing as they're both dead at the end. But you can't argue that the events leading to their deaths were seminal!
For me, I start with the event, or with a situation like a powderkeg ready to blow. Who's there, what are they like and what do they need to do? From there, I spin the characters back, even as I march them forward.
How about you? How do you approach it?
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