Thursday, November 5, 2009

People not Characters


"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters."
Ernest Hemingway

It is one of the first questions any writer asks themselves when they are embarking on a new project: "Who are these people?" You suddenly have all these people popping up in your mind demanding to be heard; but who are they? It can be a complicated question with an equally intricate answer.

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of preparation. I figure out each of the characters in my plot long before I actually start writing the story. I know when they were born and where they went to school. I know their home situations; I learn about their hopes and dreams and their fears. They become real people, not flat characters on a page. All this work pays off once I start to write because I know each of their voices. I know who's funny or who's uncomfortable. I know who's never really gotten over their first love and who is only interested in creature comforts. I love them all, even the ones who drive me a little nuts.

It's easy to go with stock characters; the warm-hearted barmaid, the shallow social lion, the slightly chubby best friend. But I try to resist the temptation because I would like readers to meet people they've never met before in someone else's book. I try to write about 'why' and that doesn't work with flat characters. I need to write people with all their myriad of quirks or my plot fails.

Even with all my preparation there are always surprises. A scene I was going to write with two characters suddenly has a third one poking his nose through the door saying "I need to be here too!" I discover two characters are far more alike under the skin than I first suspected; or one I thought would be trustworthy is definitely not. There are new discoveries every time I write.

Think honestly about the characters that you are writing. Are they truly real? Are they serving the plot or is the plot serving them? How have they changed by the end of your story? No one is static; events inevitably change us for the better or for the worse. Get to know your characters; your people. It's time well spent.

19 comments:

  1. Elspeth - You are so right! Real characters are the essence of a good story, whatever the genre. As you say, without those characters, any plot's likely to fall flat because the characters are. I like your idea, too, of learning about your characters - really getting to know them - before you write. I try to do the same thing. And, once I get started writing, I do my best to let the characters tell the story and try to stay out of their way. That way, they are more real and the story's more interesting because it takes into account the way that real people develop.

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  2. I've blamed a couple false starts on the characters not taking over. But maybed I didn't get to know them well enough before writing. I'm glad I read this today. I was just perusing books on getting organized: in life, in writing, in everything! This is very vital to me right now. Thanks, Elspeth!

    Michele
    SouthernCityMysteries

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  3. I'm not a pre-planner by nature. I think about my book but I don't have it planned out. I've tried planning but what I find is that once I start writing, the people take over and reveal themselves to me. It's amazing how often something pops up that surprises me about this character I created. Weird.

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  4. I can see how having the people developed would make the actual writing easier to delve into. What I find intriguing is the lengths you go to...down to the smallest detail or piece of information about them. How do you keep all the facts and characteristics straight?

    I know some writers/authors use post boards, some outlines, some are just THERE - in their heads. Are you able to keep everyone separate and, well, organized?

    Inquring mind wants to know...

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  5. Margot; We seem to employ very similar methods; I hope I have the same level of success as you!

    Michele; I hope it helps; best of luck!

    Stephanie; Everyone has their own methods; I'm fairly sure if I didn't plan I'd end up hip-deep in chaos.

    Crystal; Since you asked; I write it all down like mini-biographies. It does take time, but it's worth it in the end.

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  6. Love this post!

    I fall in love w/ my characters, no doubt. I want them to be people my readers yearn to really meet and talk to themselves.

    And some new ones have been popping in lately. We'll see how long they stay. :)

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  7. Very sound advice!

    I have not always been successful with all my characters, but I think all the flash fiction pieces I have written recently have helped: when you only have 500 words to tell a story, you have to make the character credible in a few words.

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  8. I am always struck by how much preparation actors do for a role, going way beyond what's in the script, (sometimes as in depth as what toothpaste the character uses), but then you know that because you are an actor. You can't go wrong when you follow Hemingway's advice.

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  9. Elisa; Glad you liked it! I think every writer wants to create characters readers would like to meet.

    Dorte; I so admire those of you who can write a story in 500 words! I don't think I have the skill to write that precisely.

    Elizabeth; It's odd. I do far more preparation for writing than I ever did when I was acting. Acting was fairly easy. Not sure what this says about my acting or my writing!

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  10. Great post, Elspeth. My characters are real enough to be acting like real teenagers right now! Hopefully that continues :)

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  11. Jemi; Good for you! I recommend heavy doses of vodka!

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  12. Elspeth, I love that you're working hard to provide your readers with a new experience---characters that aren't stock characters.

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  13. I so wish I could know my peeps in advance like you do. Mine turn around and say, "That's all I'm telling you 'til we get this show on the road."

    Wanna trade people?

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  14. Elizabeth; I am trying. Some might seem familiar types, but there's lots going on underneath the masks.

    Carol; I still get surprises; today one of my more silent men decided it was time to speak with a very loud voice. I let him; he had a good point to make!

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  15. This is where I struggle, making characters real, then showing their progression as the story progresses. I'm working on it.

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  16. this is so true and I appreciate your thoughts on it. Authors often write the way THEY think and talk and their characters ALL sound like them and the same. NOT true to life-like. As an editor I run into this all the time. GET REAL - real people are all different, all talk, act, to stupid things, good things, everything in unique ways. It's a challenge, true, but good novels accomplish actual creation of living beings.

    Nice post.

    Marvin D Wilson

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  17. This is so helpful to me as I begin my new project. I have no idea if the voice coming thru is a character, a Muse, or just me, crazy. Just trying to spend time allowing it to happen.
    karen

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  18. Elspeth this is off-topic...You seem very organized, what system do you use? How do you outline? Do you have certain software you prefer? I'm trying to find my way and haven't yet...I need ideas! Thanks.

    Michele

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  19. Michele; I'm extremely low-tech when it comes to outlining. I make notes about all the main plot points and then put them in order. Different colours of ink help me differentiate the various plots and characters.

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