Characters are interesting pieces of your imagination. For many writers they are autonomous being made up of our experiences but different from us in fundamental ways. This at least is my experience, and by anecdotal evidence that of most of the writers I know. You hear it in interviews all the time – authors speak of their characters as though they are living, breathing people. Many of them talk about the characters telling the story and they are just there to write it down. It sounds crazy; in a way it sort of is.
I do want to take a moment to recognize that this is not true for all writers. There are many who never experience their characters as separate people with minds of their own. I acknowledge that such writers exist and write wonderful stories filled with vivid characters. I wish I knew how they do it, but that is not my experience so I can’t speak to that kind of process.
For writers like me, trying to write a story before getting to know the characters as people is frustrating at best. Because my characters function as independent people, they don’t make the same choice that I would in a given situation. That means that I am lousy when it comes to plotting. I know that the characters are really just part of my imagination. Non-writers who hear me complaining about my characters tell me “they’re your characters, you can control them.” In a way they are right. In a way they are missing a fundamental aspect of imagination. For me, my imagination is much better at creating whole people than my conscious mind. It is not so great at making charts and lists and other logic driven devices which is how my conscious mind operates. Yet the two must work together to produce a story.
That is crazy making right there.
I merge the two by allowing my conscious mind to experience the characters my imagination creates in the same way that it experience the real people I meet every day. I do this in the form of character interviews. My conscious mind asks my imagination questions and the imagination answers as the character. My conscious mind is often surprised by the results, especially in the beginning. Over time, Conscious gets to know the characters with about the same level of intimacy as I know my friends – that is well enough to accurately predict how they will react to certain circumstances most of the time.
There are many pre-written tools for interviewing a character. Any of the will work. My favorite is the 30 Day Character Interview that I picked up from my friend Ekaterina Beaumont, I don’t know where she got it. There have been times when a less structured conversation was needed. I have notebooks filled with conversations written in 2 styles (print and cursive) or two colors. If those notebooks were found out of context I could be facing some serious mental health questions. Actually, this whole discussion, to many not familiar with the writing process, could look like grounds for commitment. I am confident in my sanity quite simply because I know that all of this is happening in my own head.
Sometimes I feel that all this work to get to know my characters is a pain. I wish there were a faster way to get to the actual writing. Then I remember how hard it is for me to write before I get to through this process. The thing is, my imagination creates the characters in their own world. So before I talk tot eh characters, I also don’t know much about the world they will be adventuring in. Without the world and no characters there isn’t much left to write about.
Now it sounds like I am totally at the mercy of my imagination. It is not so. My imagination is rather random most of the time. It doesn’t care about plot or story or any of the other things that make stories understandable to a reader. This is where my conscious mind takes over. It Is the part that decides what kind of story to write and what themes I want to explore with the story. My conscious mind sets the parameters for the characters and the world. My imagination needs that structure to build the characters and the world. Without it, there wouldn’t be anything worth writing. My conscious mind is also the one that knows grammar and story structure.
It takes both of my minds, working in tandem, to produce the stories that I love so much.