The Process: Characters

I’m at the character phase of the story development process, and this is one of my favorite parts. It’s like getting to know new friends. I’ve had a few characters arrive fully formed in my head, but most of the time, it’s a combination of creation and discovery.

Although I’m known for writing characters people love and you’d think that means I’m a character-driven writer, most of the time my characters come out of the plot or concept. I have a kind of story I want to tell, and I figure out the kind of people I need to tell that story. With Enchanted, Inc., I started with wanting to tell a story about a magical corporation in a modern city. I then came up with the idea of the main character being immune to magic, since I wanted to reverse the trope of the character discovering she has magical powers. That would make her a newcomer to the magical world and a bit of an outsider, so I started thinking of the kind of person that would be. I had an idea fragment filed away about a small-town Texas girl in New York, and I figured this was the story where I should use that. I knew New York pretty well as a visitor, thanks to lots of business trips and conferences, but I didn’t think I could convincingly write from the perspective of a local. That meant this was a good place to use the Texas girl, and it fit the story that she was an outsider in multiple ways. From there, I built out the details of what Katie would be like, and then I figured out what other characters would be interesting for her to interact with.

I do have a mental file of types of characters I’d like to play with someday. Sometimes I’m creating a role for an actor I find interesting (not that I’d expect them to ever play that role because, generally, by the time you write a book and get it published and then sell the film/TV rights and then something finally gets made, that actor you initially had in mind will have aged out of the role). Sometimes there’s a character I like in something else who I feel is either misused or underused, so I want to explore some aspect of that character that wasn’t really dealt with in the original thing. Then I might want to build a character around that aspect. When I’m coming up with a new story, I often turn to my mental file to “audition” these characters for roles. If they fit, then I start building a character on that framework. By the time I’m done with this development, you probably won’t recognize the original source unless you know me really well, know what characters I’ve talked about that I wish had been handled differently in other books/shows/movies, and recognize any bits of physical description that show up. The original character is really more of an inspiration than an actual model.

In the case of the story I’m working on now, I’m being utterly self-indulgent and throwing in a ton of “I want to write the kind of character this actor would play” and “they did it wrong and I’m going to do it justice” characters. It’s all the people I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Some of that does still come out of the story framework. I need a certain kind of character to fill a certain story role, and someone in my mental idea file fits. In this story, there’s also a role that was created just for a particular mental character, and that ended up shaping the plot.

The work I’m doing right now is fleshing out that mental framework, making these characters truly my people. I’m figuring out what makes them tick: what they want, what they fear, how they need to grow, more about their personalities and backgrounds, etc. Over the years, I’ve compiled a bunch of questions that I ask myself about characters, and I make myself answer these questions for each major character. I sometimes do some writing exercises in which I write random scenes (that probably won’t end up in the book) involving the characters as a way of finding their voices. Something I learned from an acting class is to write the scene that happens just before the character first appears in the story from that character’s perspective. That makes it easier to write the character in some kind of context instead of them just appearing from nowhere. They’re not just stepping on stage, they’re coming from somewhere else.

During this phase, if there are actors I’ve mentally cast or existing characters I’m using as inspiration, I may watch things with the actors or characters and take notes about mannerisms I want to use, the way I’d describe how they move or how their voices sound. I may or may not use any of these, but it helps me to get the original in my head and then alter that mental image so that I have my character solidly in my head.

I’ve done the person I think will be my lead character this week and have discovered some really cool stuff that wasn’t in my original plan. I move on to one of the more mysterious characters next week. I’m not sure what’s up with him, so it will take some digging.

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