Last week, we talked about how important research is to a novel. Today, we’re going to talk about the people that populate your stories–the characters.
There are a plethora of approaches involving characters. Virginia Woolf talked about digging a cave behind hers:
“I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment.”
Diana Gabaldon writes about characterization at length on her website. Some authors prefer to know everything about their characters, from the time they were born to their favorite childhood breakfast, while some wing it as they go along. Some characters have things borrowed from people I know, and some are created out of whole cloth (like Ariel, a minor character in The Undesirables–I just worked on a scene with her yesterday, so she’s fresh in my mind. And yes, her name is Ariel for a reason.)
Generally, I know my main characters well. I write down details about them–eye color, hair color, height, general body shape and composition. I know how they like to dress and what they do for fun, and I can picture them as I’m writing. Secondary characters tend to spring up because the main characters need them to populate their world. For example, in Undesirables, Kate (the main character) has a best friend, Paige. David (Kate’s husband, and the other protagonist), has a best friend, Eric. While I might not know as much about these guys as I do about Kate and David, I still need to know how Eric and Paige will react in situations with Kate and David. How do they talk? What is their relationship with my main characters? What is their physicality–how they enter a room, how they sit, their mannerisms.
In Pilate’s Wife, for example, I knew there were things that Pontius and Claudia wouldn’t do. They wouldn’t slouch or be slovenly people. They wouldn’t talk with their mouths full. They have a certain sense of breeding and carriage. I also had to be careful of their dialogue. I couldn’t put twenty-first century idioms into first century mouths.
But the main characters have “caves” behind them: I know when they were born, who their parents are, their siblings. I often sketch out family trees for these guys, and have birthdays for their siblings and parents. I know where their parents live and where the characters grew up. I know their best and worst school subjects. To me, that’s all very important, even if I will never use this information. I still have to know it.
The last piece of creating a vibrant novel is dialogue, and for this, I’ll have to devote another post.
Who are some of your favorite fictional characters? If you write fiction, how do you create your characters?