I’ve been working on a couple of new projects lately and characterization has had me pulling my hair out. Why? Because although I’ve got the major players down, one particular story uses a rather large cast and honestly, I am struggling with writing them all so that they’re believable. The other story, well the characters are almost too real and it’s causing me problems with the plot. You see, I have a killer plot, but the characters don’t all fit neatly. So do I take some of them out and replace them? Interesting idea, except that in order for the rest of the cast to work, I need some of these characters. I’ll figure it out. I just need to play with them a little more. I also have two unwritten stories with completely developed casts of characters which I should probably just write, but I hate starting something and not finishing it. Ugh. It’s not a nice place inside my head. It’s loud, dark, and somewhat frightening. This is why I’m yet again writing a post about characterization.
How much thought do you put into your characters before writing? Do you just write and let them carry you through the story? Do you build them first, detailing everything right down to the blackened toenail on their right foot? Really, there is no wrong way to develop a character, but you do have to develop them. Why? Because they have to be believable and dynamic. To have both of those things, in my opinion, you have to put some thought into it. Now I don’t mean writing out character sketches and such. Goodness, I never do that. But I do let them marinate in my mind, invade my sleep, and talk to me for a long time before I begin to write. That is still developing, just not in the anal, organized way that my brain is incapable of doing.
I usually have my characters before I have the story. I can hear the character’s voice, see their face, and feel their emotions long before I have a story to go with them. I rarely write this stuff down. I don’t know why. I suppose by the time I find the right story for them, I’ve listened to them and dreamt about them so often that it’s like writing about my best friend, or myself. For example, Wade Bowen in Dirty Truths (don’t worry, some day hopefully in the not so distant future, you will all know Wade) was in my head for years. When I decided to write this story, I knew instantly Wade would star in it. The only problem was that I didn’t have a female lead. So I had to sit down and decide what kind of woman would fall for a guy with not only a killer body, but a killer’s mind. Yes, Wade is far from lily white. He’s more of a grey shade. Just the way I like my heroes.
I imagine most writers have the story before the character, which makes sense to me. But when I try to do it that way, my characters don’t feel real to me and in the end, the story feels forced. I hate that.
In Once Bitten (don’t worry, I’m retitling this very soon) I have a family of vampires. This family frolicked through my dreams for months before I committed their ‘souls’ to paper. What did I have before I began? Let me go through the cast that wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote their damn story.
First there’s Aedon, the spoiled Prince who always gets his way. Gabriel, the tortured soul who wouldn’t trade immortality for anything but struggles with the constant battle between his instinct and his conscience…until destiny steps in and settles the argument. Corbyn the deliciously handsome hunk of vampire whose hard candy shell hides a soft, creamy center. Olivia, the sex kitten who can’t seem to remain faithful but is one of the most loyal friends you’ll ever meet. Jacob and Oren, twin souls without a drop of humanity left between them. Malcolm the powerful elder who tires of existing but remains because of his devotion to William, a golden Adonis, who we later find is much more than a pretty face. Jeremy…well, I’ll let you learn more about Jeremy later. His soul is blacker than anyone ever imagined. And Natalie, a small town girl turned big city stripper who falls for Gabriel and is unwillingly sucked into the little family. These are the characters that plagued me for months. Originally I wrote an outline for a much older story with an entirely different cast of characters. It was supposed to be the story detailing Gabriel’s life until his change. But once I began writing, everything felt stilted–wrong, until I realized that I was starting at the wrong place. I needed to begin at the middle and work my way backward and forward.
Now, reading that over it sounds as though my characters dictate the story. Let me clarify: they are characters, not real people holding a gun to my head. I control my story, not them. If something doesn’t fit, it’s gone. If they don’t contribute to the story, they’re set aside for a different story. To be honest, it drives me nuts when I hear writers saying that their characters refuse to cooperate and the story just won’t end because of it or they’ve completely veered off the original outline because their characters had different ideas.
No, writer. The characters are not calling the shots. You are. Don’t you think it makes more sense that your innate writing ability said that your outline is shit and you must go this way to make it work? Give yourself some credit. Characters are nothing without you and their success or failure within the story is either because of your brilliance or your stupidity. Whichever. Just let’s keep it real.
I also think that characterization is as important as plot. In fact, I’ll overlook plot issues if the writer has created characters that practically jump off the page. Not major plot issues, but minor ones. Hell, I’ll even overlook purple prose because of memorable characters. And we all know how much I hate fluffy flowery writing. Actually, many of my favorite characters have been in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. I don’t even recall a lot of the plots but I remember nearly every detail of her characters. Stephen King is another whose characters stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the story. There are others, but I won’t bore you with my slightly dark reading list.
Now that I’ve rambled for a sufficient amount of time, I’m going to throw it to you guys. How do you build your characters? Do you find it easy or is it something you struggle with? Are you one of those people who believe the characters run the show? Why? Help me to understand this phenomenon.