Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Populating the Fictional Realm

Who are these people, these imaginary souls, filling up our manuscripts and occupying word counts?  Are they real, do they exist, or are they merely a collection of descriptions and dialogues? 

Well, of course, the characters of a fictional story are just that, fiction.  They are borne from the author’s head, given life by creative thought.  There is no action, no form of speech that can come from these players that has not first passed through the mind of the writer.  But are these characters merely puppets?  Do we craft them out of air and then proceed to use them as tools to animate a tale?  Certainly many writers do and many will continue to do as well, but should you?

If I can take away one useful piece of advice from my time spent in creative writing classes, it’s this: A writer is not responsible for creating a story so much as they are putting together the pieces of a mechanism that will drive the story forward on its own.  Or, more simply, you supply the setting, the circumstances, and the people involved, and if you do it right, the story will play itself out in the only way that it can.  It is the writer’s job to simply capture it in physical form. 

The setting and the circumstances surrounding the plot(s), those are static things, immovable parts.  On their own, they are lifeless, bits of cold metal and rubber.  This is particularly why I don’t care for stories that depend far too heavily on plot devices (one after another) to push itself toward a conclusion.  Plots are fine and dandy, they are completely necessary, without them you just have a bunch of people standing around, talking to each other, going to work, eating, and heading for bed once the day is over.  No matter how interesting those people are (and they should be), that’s a pretty dull story.  In fact, it’s not even a story at all.  Plot is necessary, but it’s not everything.  Because characters to operate the plot (machinery), what you have are a lot of interesting looking set-pieces that don’t much other than look interesting – a hollowed out chocolate Easter bunny comes to mind…

There is a point somewhere buried under all this, hold on, here it is: People care about other (interesting) people which in literature terms translates to readers care about (interesting) characters.   

How a fictional character is created isn’t so important.  Usually these figures will be finagled out of personality traits from families, friends, casual acquaintances, random encounters, and most usually from within the mind of the author herself (or himself…we really need some more gender neutral pronouns).   Even if the character is a being of pure fantasy, pulled complete and pure from the imagination of the creator, what matters is that this person (animal, Cyclops, alien, Canadian, etc.) emerges from its (there’s that dumb pronoun problem again) womb as a complete and wholly unique organism.

Why is this important?  Because characters created solely for the purpose of filling a role (hero, lover, bad guy, damsel, best friend, quest-giver, etc.) aren’t able to make their own decisions as characters, won’t have desires and fears to move them in one direction or another.  A flat character created out of stock parts from other media is one that the writer will have to physically move through the story, manually handling the decision-making process for that character and ultimately guiding their soulless forms to a predetermined fate.  How boring.  

Generally, you don't want your characters to resemble a gang of sheep
unless you're specifically writing about a gang of sheep.

Ever watch a movie and know exactly how everything is going to play out before the introduction sequence is over?  That’s the work of bad and lazy writers who just pulled together spare parts underneath a new coat of paint to form their characters and scenes.  Flat characters are boring because we can see exactly what they’re thinking, where they’re going, and know how they’ll react to any given situation.  And we know all these things because we’ve seen these same characters (or versions of them) in a hundred different places before. 

So now comes the difficult part, how does one give birth to a healthy, fully-developed character?  Quite honestly, I don’t have an easy answer to that question.  There is no magic formula, no diagram to follow, no numbered steps to take that will help you achieve a full-bodied protagonist.  Every writer will have a different approach, a different philosophy.   Some might tell you that such easy-to-follow methods exist, but they are bold-faced liars, poor writers, or both.  Because crafting a character is so much more than listing their likes and dislikes and figuring out what they would eat for breakfast.   You have to spend time getting to know your characters, not just from a writer’s perspective, but from the inside. 

To be a good writer, you must effectively become your characters and spend some time looking at life through their eyes.   Only then will you be able to place a character on the page with the ability to walk, talk, react and make his or her way through any given situation.