I’ve read everyone’s comments on the blog the last couple of days and have found a way to make everyone happy. We’ll continue our discussion of characters until it runs out of steam. Then we’ll transition to talking about high-concept novels. I may even be able to get John Olson to contribute to that discussion, but he’s on a deadline right now, so it’s better to wait till the end of the month on that.
But first, everyone check out the account of my deathmatch with Camy Tang.
In real life, Camy is a friend of mine who writes Asian chick-lit. I ran an interview on this blog with Camy a couple of months ago on branding. Of course I teased her a bit, but everyone knows I think the world of her. She is one smart lady.
OK, on to character development. Last week, I talked about the first step in character development, which is defining the character’s “physiology” which is a fancy word for the character’s inherited traits. (I am here summarizing the high points of the book HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD MYSTERY, by James N. Frey.)
The next step is to define the character’s “sociology” which is a fancy term for the character’s environment. The old debate of “nature versus nurture” is silly. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Part of who you are comes from what was done to you or not done to you.
So you need to know what kind of home your character grew up in. What kind of parents? What kind of family structure? How many siblings and what gender and what birth order? What religion, if any? What social structures? What’s the political situation? Economic situation? How big is the house, and did your character have his own bedroom and if so, how many cockroaches were under his bed? Did he have a cat or a dog or a stegosaurus or what?
You need to know this stuff. You won’t use it all, but you still need to know it. You can figure it all out in advance, or you can make it up on the fly. Either way, you need to write it all down somewhere, so you don’t have him the middle son in a Democratic family on page 40, and the oldest son of a herd of Republicans on page 400.
This reminds me that Holly posted a question yesterday:
Here is my dilemma. I have given myself my 20th migraine doing character charts – really, truly, simply I can’t do it. I dread it. It’s the lurking monster in the night for me. But can a writer create believable characters through story alone?
When I try and map out my characters, analyze them, they cease to be real to me. Real people to me are always a mystery, a puzzle to solve and appreciate. But in charting, half the details I try to record on my characters are blatantly wrong, different from the story and then I get confused – who are these people, why do they look different in real light versus story light and which is the right one?
But I know who they are in story and don’t worry about it during writing. Am I doomed to 2-dimensional characters here???
Randy sez: Create your characters any old way that works for you. If you need to create them in advance, then do so. If you need to discover them by writing the story, do that. Whatever works. The only rule in writing well is . . . to write well.
But once you’ve figured out who your characters are, Holly, do write down the important stuff so you’ve got a reference document that tells what color eyes they have, and all that stuff. Without that, your poor editor may go crazy trying to break the deadlock created by an inconsistent manuscript. And editors have enough problems as it is.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the essential conflict between “physiology” and “sociology.”