A friend suggested I write a blog post about my “process of developing characters.” Caution: questionable advice ahead!
Fiction can’t exist without characters, but the extent to which characters are developed can vary a great deal from novel to novel. I’ll point to Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite novels, as an example of a book where the characters are never developed any further than the absolute minimum. We’re not told anything about anybody, beyond the details that propel the story forward.
The NaNo Prep 101 workbook, a resource offered for participants in NaNoWriMo, suggests 46 questions for a writer to answer about the fictional characters they are creating. I waver in my opinion, whether that’s admirable or ridiculous. I don’t think much about my characters before I start writing. The story will create them; the narrative as it spins out tells me about them.
In a graphic novel, the reader knows what every character looks like from the very first panel. In a traditional novel, you never know what the characters look like in the reader’s mind. A writer can set some boundaries by spelling out a tedious physical description, but unless certain features are critical to the plot, what’s the point? Let the reader’s imagination run wild! In my completed YA manuscript Silver Sparks, I didn’t keep a vision of central character Kaneia Stellivar’s face in my mind as I wrote. When Hollywood comes calling for that book, they can cast any actress of the right age, as far as I am concerned.
Characters in novels come to life in what they say and what they do. In particular, they reveal themselves by interacting with each other in dialogue. In my writing, I want characters’ voices to be distinguishable from each other. But the road to a distinct character voice is strewn with hazards. Bad accents, drawls, overactive vocabulary, verbal tics, signature words or phrases – these can easily become a point of scorn if used poorly.
One of the reasons I usually write in first person is because I want to have one character who observes and filters everybody else. A central character narrates in her own voice, and she serves to create all the other characters by virtue of their relationship to her. I like the mechanics of a storyline where all the judgments and assessments are made by one character.
Someday, maybe, I’ll rewrite this blog post after I’ve recently read Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, and I’ll reach 100% opposite conclusions. There is a beautiful example of a character-driven story.