Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Spin It Back and Grandkid Days

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?


Charles Gramlich said...

I sometimes work this way, knowing I need a specific type of character for a specific kind of event, but more often they just seem to appear on the stage for me. I look around, wondering where the hell he or she came from. But then I just let them run until I get a handle on them. I've already had both kinds of characters appear in Wraith of Talera.

Lisa said...

I'm still figuring it out -- but so far, it seems to be very similar to what you've described. Great post!

Angie said...

My character creation is pretty much like yours. I have an idea for a story, or even just a situation, and create the basic skeleton of the sort of character who fits my needs. Everything else just shows up as it's required, often to fit the needs of a specific scene or paragraph or line.

I don't think I've ever known a character's shoe size or favorite breakfast cereal, because I've never needed to know. Irrelevant cat is irrelevant. I harbor a strong skepticism about the questionnaire method of character development because most of the info the questionnaires I've seen are designed to draw out seems pretty pointless to me. I don't need to know ahead of time what a character's favorite color is, or what their first album purchase was, or whatever. If I ever do need it, the info will present itself. Until then a long list of random trivia doesn't help me develop my concept of the character or his/her personality.


Lana Gramlich said...

Good advice here. Makes me think back to my days as a DM, coming up with stories for my friends to play.

Anonymous said...

I tend to develop the character first. Then I develop the setting, then the story. Or at least, I used to.

It didn't work out so well. The setting would change, the plot would twist, the character grew inconsistent, though I would have sworn that I knew him up and down.

It was the second draft of the story, all these ideas and actions and traits laid out that my hero and heroine really began to shine. Some I kept. Some ideas I threw out. Everything just has to come together.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I rarely do flashbacks, Steve. If I do, its the standard cop stuff where some cop recalls a similar situation years before. I have written a few novellas that cut from present day (well, 1996) to various years going back to the early 60s, and when I did that I was mostly riffing on my childhood.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Hmnn. I think I misread the gist of the post (I think). But what I was trying to convey was the fact that I'd create more of the character in flashback than I would in the present.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, I had those kinds of 'WTF are you doing here?' moments too. Also, sometimes a character gets on stage and starts chewing the scenery until they've written themselves a much bigger part.

Lisa, I'm still figuring it out too. Probably by the time I know what I'm doing, I won't be able to describe it!

Angie, I remember Neil Gaiman remarking once that he starts a story with strangers, and by the end, he knows all sorts of odd facts about those characters that never make it into the book. I'm somewhere in between.

Lana, I always describe Dungeons & Dragons to the uninitiated as collaborative storytelling. And the best DM's usually do have some sort of plot for the players to blunder into.

Elizaw, I do believe John Connolly works about that way. Oh, and that's much the way Brett Battles wrote THE CLEANER. Also, John is big on the rewriting: he figures the story doesn't really happen until the 2nd draft.

Wayne, your second post was closer. I have no idea how to handle flashbacks myself. Just talking about developing character (and backstory) from their function in the tale.

Miladysa said...

Another interesting post Steve, thank you.

Ditto Charles - they just appear from the ether :-D

cs harris said...

I work my major characters this way, too-take what I need them to do, then figure out what kind of person would/could do it. More minor characters tend to just show up in all their wondrous glory.

Love that expression, Grandkid Days!

Steve Malley said...

Miladysa, thanks. I'm glad you liked it!

CS, the term Grandkid Days helps keep me 'on mission', preventing such events as Chapter Seven, Conan picks up his dry cleaning.

SzélsőFa said...

Sorry, I'll be off: although I am definitely NOT the mother of your son :)
- but I do have that golden ring around the middle blackness in my iris as well. So does my son.
*coming over from Bernita's*

SzélsőFa said...

Oh that and the iris is blue-gray.

Bernita said...

Something like yours, in a more meek and mild way.