Burning Question: How do you create your characters?
“How do you create your characters?” is one of those questions that for me is akin to “Where do you get your ideas?” (Short answer: I put a plate of milk and cookies out on the patio at night and in the morning they’re gone and a stack of ideas is sitting on the wrought iron table instead—way cool.)
I’ve written stories where I began…not even with an idea but with an exercise that I’ve forced down the throats of students enough times that I thought “You know, I’d better check and see if this works.” Story in point: “The Final Act” in POE, edited by Ellen Datlow. Exercise: “Two characters come out of a building.” Really. That’s all I started with. Two people come out of a building and… You can try this for yourself. That’s your cue line. Start writing immediately. Do not think about it, plan it, map it, or whatever. Just start writing. Who are they? Do they know each other? Where in the course of a story does this take place? I tried it myself. Yes, it works–as scary as that is.
That said, overall I think characters are expressions of their world. They emerge out of the place and time. You’re writing something noirish, you turn a corner and there is your character. He’s leaning against a taxi cab. And, oh, this is 1950. Old taxi cab. He’s wearing a leather bomber jacket, so I think he was in the war. He didn’t shave this morning. He’s smoking Camels, unfiltered, because it’s 1950 and nobody believes in lung cancer yet. He’s got on olive drab trousers that might even be military surplus. A tan shirt. etc.
I’m making him up out of nothing, mind you. But I said “noirish” and 1950. That’s as much as I know about my story going in–and the truth is, you likely know way more than that about yours. So if you turn a corner, who are you going to find? You have a context in mind for what you’re writing, and your character should not be stapled onto that context; she should be an expression of it. We all live in our world, and we wear clothes that belong in it. We get tattoos if we’re of the generation that does that in this world. We don’t if we’re not. You know these things already, even if you are making the world out of your most fantastical notions. You know it. Your characters come out of what you know. Period. And if they don’t…trust me, they’ll suck. That’s not to say you can’t drop someone with a purple mohawk into 1950. Absolutely. But she’s going to create some rather enormous local ripples because that really wasn’t a good look just then; and you must deal with/recognize/factor in those ripples. Which can be an interesting experiment all by itself.
So, this 19 year old woman with a purple mohawk comes out of a building…
Gregory Frost is the best-selling author of the acclaimed Shadowbridge duology. He writes what he considers is character-driven fiction most of the time. That 1950s guy will show up in “The Dingus”, a story to appear in Ellen Datlow’s Supernatural Noir anthology, out next year. Just see if he doesn’t.