Monday, 11 June 2012

Character by the seat of my pants

This week we have a wonderful post on character creation from the author of The Dragon Ring, Maggie Secara.

Character by the seat of my pants

Some people plot, as they say, by the seat of their pants. I can’t do that, but I do tend to let characters just appear when they need to and tell me who they are as we go along. The last thing I have any use for, no matter how good the questions are, is a “character sheet.”

If that’s an unfamiliar term, a character sheet is a tool many people suggest is absolutely necessary for creating a character before the story even begins. Do an internet search for “character sheets for writers” and you’ll get more examples than you can possibly use. In general, it’s a list of questions. Personally, I don’t need to know my guy’s height and weight, favorite color and favorite band before I can start talking about him. If they’re important to the story, or to how he reacts to events, those things will reveal themselves as the story develops.

When I first started imagining The Dragon Ring, my main character Ben was supposed to be a college professor who had to solve a mystery. That’s all I had. Without knowing more about the problems he faced and how he’d react to them, how could I answer questions about his character? What good were they?

I started making notes, just dashing words on paper to see what kind of story this was going to be. As various plot elements began to take root, he became a writer, then a musician. With a young son. That meant a wife—okay, a living wife, not the classic single dad. Her name could wait. A harassed musician who didn’t have time for his son… STOP! Cliché alert. No, a harassed musician with no time for his music… why? Ah ha, the first actual question. Answering it led to a whole new career for the main character, and a unique situation.

In The Dragon Ring, when I first put Ben Harper in a pub in Devon, I didn’t know or care about the color of his eyes (quite ordinary brown). I also didn’t know exactly how he’d react to an undeniably magical event happening right in front of him.  And then the guy buying hm a pint turns out to be the King of Faerie. I found out right as I wrote it that he had once been a believer but consciously set the mythic part of him aside. Not grown out of it; set it aside. What part of a character sheet would have given me that?

Now I realize that in a character driven novel, which Dragon Ring is, you can only go so far with this casual approach. Once things start to happen, there are some things you really do need to know. 

What questions do you really want to ask about a character? Here are a few I had to address before I got too far along.
  • What does he want? This may be the whole goal of the story: to find a treasure or a murderer, to save a child, to save the world, or just to get to the end of the trail. To start with, Ben thinks he wants to be left alone. His world is quite interesting enough, thank you; but Faerie is about to provide him with goals he wants even more.
  • Strengths? What makes it possible for him even to begin his quest? Ben has three special gifts: True Sight, that lets him see the faerie world; True Finding, which means he can find anything he has a connection to, including himself (he never gets lost); and True Music, perfect pitch. Since in my universe, faerie magic is inseparable from music, this allows him to navigate the veils that separate our world from Faerie, and travel into the past. There are others, as I found along the way, but these are the ones without which the story can't proceed.
  • What are his… people usually say weaknesses but let’s say vulnerabilities. Everyone has them and so does Ben, whether he’s aware of them or not. In story terms, these are the features that his adversaries can use against him, to threaten or control. Vulnerabilities are not the same as fears, and aren't necessarily a negative, though the villains usually think so. Ben might be afraid of drowning, but it won’t stop him from taking an interview with a naiad at the bottom of a river. However, his love for his family--certainly not a weakness--can be turned against him. When his son Sparrow  is threatened, Ben is helpless, over-borne by the faerie queen’s magic; all he can do is beg Oberon to step in. 
All those other questions about siblings, childhood memories and the kind of car he drives can be answered when they're needed, or never, if they’re not essential to this story. Right now, as far as I know, Ben Harper is an only child. But who knows? When you’re creating a character by the seat of your pants, anything’s possible.

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  1. I didn't use character sheets for Undreamed Shores (and would have had no need to, for all the reasons you suggest). I did use them, however, for my forthcoming book, An Accidental King, which has a much larger cast, and covers a period of 40 years. Much of the info I never used, but the most useful piece of info was actually their date of birth. If you are moving back and forth through time, it would be all to easy to get confused over their ages at a given moment, and I have picked this up in critiques of other writers' work.

  2. I'd never heard of a character sheet until I read this. I store the vital information about my character on a spreadhseet which is allied to the novel, and by vital I mean, forename, surname, year of birth, age and role, married, single.

    It's not an approach I would recommend. It involves careful proofing to ensure that the character does not act out of character.

    Great post, Maggie.

  3. I do usually wind up writing out a character sketch for the principals, and then add to it as I go along. My books all have a fairly large ensemble cast. It's especially helpful in a series where you don't want to forget, or, worse, contradict some like personality quirk. For one book I started long ago and never finished, I also did a birthdays list, Mark. As you suggest, when things get multi-generational you really want to keep the generations straight. I also did a column for Age In that was very useful.

    The whole tale of the Dragon Ring takes exactly 7 days, so I didn't need that kind of detail.