Slipping Beneath the Skin: Thoughts on Conjuring Characters

Every author has favorite parts of the writing process, or particular strengths or weaknesses. One of my passions in storytelling is characterization. I don’t like reading books about one-dimensional characters who act like their personalities came off of statistic sheets in a Dungeons and Dragons game, and I don’t write people like that, either.

Yes, I said ‘write people.’ That’s the key to good characterization—don’t ‘create characters.’ Characters are the marks that appear on your screen when you strike the keys on your keyboard. The men, women, or creatures in your story should be more than that—so write people.

“How do I do that?” you might be wondering. “They’re made up, right?”

The people in your stories might not be literally walking around in flesh and blood and three dimensions, but if your reader can’t believe that they could be, then your story is on the way to being dead in the water. Your characters need homes, families, memories (both good and bad), likes, dislikes, loves, hates, and fears. They need goals—things they want to achieve. A character’s goal can be the engine that drives a story, and the obstacles another character puts in the way can be the conflict without which even an exceptionally-written tale gets stale fast.

Let your characters be themselves. Don’t base your character completely on a character from a favorite book, movie or TV show, and just change the name. Give your characters their own personalities, and you won’t have to look to another source to make sure you’re portraying them the right way. That being said…

Write what you know—or who. We all have people we love, hate, or have been inspired by. Using a friend, an enemy, or even a loved one as the partial basis for a character can be a meaningful way of beginning to write people, not just characters. I’ve certainly done this myself. But if it’s done right, you’ll find that the person in your story grows into themselves and becomes someone in his or her own right, apart from the real-world individual in whom you originally saw a spark of inspiration. In the end, that’s better, anyway. It’s a better tribute to someone you love that the character you thought was based on them grew into her own person on the page, and lives a life all her own, than to sketch some still-life of someone you know, complete with the same name.

Use your imagination. Just because you’ve never flown a starship, or killed someone, or been arrested, or had a baby doesn’t mean the people in your stories can’t do these things. The imagination is a powerful thing. Trust it—and use similar experiences that are within the scope of your own knowledge to help you fill in the gaps.

 

Hopefully, these tips will help you perform the author’s ever-needed magic trick of conjuring characters from the mind onto the page. Because you can have the best story ideas, and the most well-planned and well-built fictional world imaginable, but if you don’t have people to live those stories; to make those worlds into homes—then you don’t have anything. So write, people—and write people.

 

Changing Voices

One of the slogans of my publisher, PDMI Publishing, LLC, has to do with ‘personal voices and visions.’  These are important things for authors.  You’ve got to know what your own authorial voice is, where it fits–and doesn’t–with other authors who swim alongside you in the literary current, and who have come before you in the great oceans of time.  It’s also good to know the voices of your characters, so you can convey them accurately–which your readers will recognize, and for which they will thank you.  Both of these voices–authorial and character voices–can change, over time.  i know my own literary voice has changed over the years, although it is still recognizably mine, just as is the voice I speak and sing with.

I’m currently writing Annah’s Exile, the second book in my Children of Evohe series, which focuses largely on a young woman named Annah, from a distant world called Evohe.  Annah’s voice changes–both her physical voice, and the voice of her own personal authority in her world–as all of ours do, as we grow up and grow old.  Conveying that is one of the challenges and joys of writing about her–and it gives me the chance to look back on my own changes as well.

As I write a novel, I always end up compiling a playlist of songs that have been somehow inspirational to–or downright connected to–the work in progress.  There was a song on Annah‘s early playlist that never quite seemed to fit the first book, although it fit Annah herself, and her youth and sense of yearning.  I came across it again today, and found that, lyrically, it fits more with Annah’s Exile’s themes of maturity, responsibility, and homecoming.  Yet Chantal Kreviazuk’s high voice and impassioned vocals seem to evoke Annah’s younger self.  I can almost imagine her singing this song, about what’s going on in her life–at the point I am writing about in the second book–and remembering things about her younger self (which is not that distant a memory for her).  Singing of the present, if you will, in the voice of the past.   I wonder if, in that sense, our voices ever change at all.  Anyway, take a listen to this.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-ouxPhYy7Y