Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Befriend Your Characters

“Everything characters say or do is a clue to their personalities, their histories, and the forces that motivate them.” William G. Tapply in The Elements of Mystery Fiction
I didn’t understand this when I started writing. I made the characters fit the story, instead of letting them drive the tale.

I get now that each character acts and speaks based on his or her upbringing. Of course, this means I have to know the person’s history -- perhaps not all of it, but enough to understand why a character acts and speaks the way he or she does.

I don’t delve into a character until after the first draft of a story (or a few chapters) is complete. I do this because, often, I don’t know what the story’s about until I write it. I’ve read articles by authors who perform thorough examinations of every character before the first sentence is written. I like to learn about my characters as I write.

One story, accepted for publication in the February issue of Ascent Aspirations Magazine, began with an old man swimming laps in an indoor pool. That’s all I knew when I started. I wrote the first draft, then sat back and thought about what I'd learned about this character and his history. (I only needed to know back to his college days.) The ending didn’t change from that first draft, but I altered the journey from beginning to end to make it his story. Another short story began with a homeless woman turning a corner and seeing a naked woman standing under a streetlight. I didn’t know anymore about either woman than one was homeless and the other naked. I learned a lot about both through their conversation.

This discussion has lead me to realize that I write character-based stories. I hadn’t known that until now.

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