The Challenge of Writing Characters: Or, Why Giving Birth Is Easier

In Craft, Musings on April 27, 2010 at 3:28 pm

You have to be careful where you say “writing a novel is hard work.” The guy that cuts down trees for a living, or the woman who manages corporate accounts generally don’t have a lot of sympathy for the process.

But I hold to my charge: Writing a novel is hard work. In specific, building believable characters is. Having grown a  human child inside my body (as opposed to a litter of kittens), I can safely compare and say that writing a fictional character is harder. At least with the baby nature takes care of itself for the most part. I didn’t have to supervise the formation of limbs or fingernails; I just had to eat right and exercise. But in a novel, I’m in charge of everything from the ground up. From brain stem to zyphoid process, my characters are golems, coming alive with my words. And frankly, labor was easier with my real child too; I only had to do it once. But the daily agony of birthing character is far more intense.

As I’m knee deep into what I guess is becoming draft three of my novel, I am learning hard lessons about building believable characters. You can research the heck out of a condition your character has, you can know what they ate for dinner every night at age ten, you can understand their longings…but can you communicate that to the reader so that the reader feels in their skin?

Yes, with a lot of work.

A few quick tips that are helping me:

  • Put your character in situations (relevant to your plot) that allow the reader to feel angry for/concerned about your character.
  • Give your character a deep, unfulfilled longing that is present internally in every scene until that longing is fulfilled
  • Write “test-run” scenes where you play out scenarios with your character interacting with different kinds of people/situations (these are often called first drafts, hahah).

Let me know your thoughts on character building.

  1. If you only had to do it once, and at most it lasted 48 hours, and there was a team of professionals standing by to make sure the process didn’t kill you, I’d say writing was much easier. 🙂

  2. I am SO working on this right now & only for the 1st draft, so I’ve got a LONG way to go! I’m struggling with making her feel old enough, and it’s turning–I think–into a problem with visualization; I have to SEE her as almost an adult (which is probably how she does see herself!) in order to get her to act that way. I think it’s the closest I’ve ever come to getting into character for a stage performance. And, no, you WON’T see me doing that. 🙂

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