Is there is a universal approach to character development? If so, I am not, my friends, aware of it. Today I simply offer some thoughts on the process, on my own attempts to bring human beings to life on the page.
I will admit that there is for me something almost . . . sacred about the effort. This is because I write, almost wholly, to try to understand humanity. I very much enjoy but do not write first and last for plot. I very much enjoy but do not write above all to transmit the details of a place or time. I write out of a deep curiosity, concern and fascination with character, a wonder at what makes us tick, why we make the decisions we do, and how we react to the consequences. I write to try to render what it feels like to be human.
Like many writers, I began by writing about characters that were either like myself or fairly well-informed copies of people I knew. Like many writers, I later wrote about characters who were as unlike myself as I could confidently make them. Yet interestingly, in each and every case, the stages of "character development"--the working out and then the documentation of the bodies, minds, and hearts of people--seemed to follow a familiar path. In many years of writing I haven't managed to shorten this path, nor do I care to try. I find it too absorbing. That said, I don't necessarily recommend it. We must all work in our own way. But here, as nearly as I can describe it, are the stages I pass through in bringing a fictional being to life:
1. Image or Idea. The image or an idea for a character comes to me. I'm not exactly sure why, or from where. I don't know why this person, or these people, interest me. I haven't the foggiest idea what their problems are, or what sort of story I must take them through. They are, as I have written elsewhere, like ghosts who haven't yet lived.
2. Wooden-ness. In early drafts, my characters move, speak and think simply. They are like stick figures. They lack flesh, all depth. They act in predictable or unpredictable ways, but for reasons I do not yet entirely understand. Anything and everything can be hung on them. They are so vague, they alarm me.
3. Sketching in. Now, like Degas, I try to look at them in pieces; to try to understand everything about them all at once would be too overwhelming. I look at an arm or leg, and ask how it looks, and why my characters move the way I do. I take on a piece of two of their history, and sketch it in, and see how it alters the choices they make. I twist them this way and that, try different scenes and altered lights, trying to detect both the shapes of their bodies and the textures of their inner lives. (This is the lengthiest and probably the least efficient way to go about something as tricky as the writing of fiction. I earnestly hope you are the kind of writer who outlines characters fully before you begin, and who knows exactly what you're doing, the whole time. It makes much more sense. But I don't do it.)
4. On stage. Now I have something that is beginning to approximate a fully-rounded human being. Now, at last, in these later drafts, I can move my character around and immediately detect the false gesture, the accent that doesn't belong, the action that has no precedent (it doesn't need to have one--but I need to know), the true step versus the misstep, and the surprising versus the nonsensical. I'm beginning to believe. To trust.
5. From stage to life. At last! This is the moment many writers describe as that when their characters "take on a life of their own." When they seem to "make their own choices" and "do things I'd never have anticipated." But all this really--and wonderfully--means is that as writers we now--by whatever path brought us here--comprehend so much about these beings who inhabit our stories that every impossible choice falls away, and every possible one stands out. Fully-fleshed, granted and now possessors of history, memory, experience, psychology, personality, drive, failings and talents, they tell us what they would do. They have substance. They can no longer be pushed this way or that on a whim, without strain. They push back.
"Ah, now," I think to myself, "I can really begin writing this book."
However you arrive at your understanding of character, I wish you joy and fascination in the journey. May your creations leap from the page. May they sass you. May they dare you to give up on them, even while encouraging you to go on.
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