Characters watch your every move. They know your every mood. They are voyeurs, secretive and cunning. The moment you start to write a story, the characters take control. While you sleep at night, they are plotting; planning. As they grow and change, they change your manuscript.
When a story drops, sometimes unwanted, into the writer’s head, the characters come to life, shadows that instantly take form. Characters are foggy mirror images of the writer. They contain her quirks and mannerisms, often disguised and in another form.
The skinny girl writer invents a fat bully businessman and discovers he blinks twice before answering crucial questions. He’s fussy about what tie goes with what suit. He buys expensive shoes he keeps in boxes. He only uses olive oil shower gel and is jealous of his wife because she attracts people to her, has natural grace and plays the cello.
Once the characters are real in the mind of the writer, they become architects who set about redrafting the plot. Unshackled from their chains, characters grow wings and set off on a journey from one state to a new, often opposite, state. The bully businessman starts a charity to ferry cattle to destitute African farmers. The spurned lover gets the girl. James Bond saves the world. Prudish Anastasia Steele gets kinky.
Writers, now slaves of their characters, set off on this journey because they are driven. It’s an itch they can’t scratch. The monkey on their back. Writers write because they can’t not write.
Characters Don’t Clean Floors
Writers will tell you they would rather clean floors than write. They are not joking. When you clean the floor, you start with a dirty floor and end with a clean floor. There is a beginning, middle and end. Something has been completed and achieved.
Stories likewise require a beginning, middle and end. But finding the precise moment to begin and visualizing the end in that place over the lip of the horizon is a lot more difficult than wringing out a wet mop. One of the key secrets of great writing is knowing where to start and when to stop.
The fact that it tires you physically and drains you mentally makes it an absolute imperative that you love your characters, the evil as well as the saintly. You must know the genre inside out, and write what moves you, what drives you, what you are compelled to share with others.
Like your own gorgeous newborn, christen your characters with a name that feels right for their temperament (or runs contrary to it), a name that resonates when you see their image in your mind and read what they have to say when it emerges on the page – and yes, once they are fleshed out, they will say what they want to say and do what they want to do.
Before the crucial one-third-in turning point that governs most stories, there will be endless fights as your characters make their journey. Character drives plot and your heroes and are in the driving seat. Characters begin as your children and become your teachers.
Characters Don’t Tell
Give characters a specific age, physiognomy, place of birth, education, family background, ambitions, interests. Give them a quirk. He’s a lawyer and secret drag racer. She’s a first grade teacher who adores lesbian leather clubs. Think about their height and weight. You don’t have to spell it out: Bob was as broad as a rowing boat and stood 6′ 4″ in his socks. Boring. Show the reader Bob’s tall when Wendy can’t reach the pasta pot on the top shelf and Bob takes it down without stretching his arm.
Give your characters a birth sign: is she a vague compassionate Pisces, he a generous but dogmatic Leo? Are they water and fire, she dousing his flames, he making her erupt in steam? Or air and fire, usually in harmony? Whether astrology grabs you or not, it is a useful tool for fashioning personality traits, and most writers keep a copy of Star Signs on their bookshelf alongside Naming Your Baby.
Star signs, physical attributes, biographies and the objectives of your characters are the skeleton of your story. This information doesn’t have to be spelled out on the page, but knowing every intimate detail of your creations blows air into their lungs. If someone has a habit of scratching their nose, make a note of it, and it will appear on the page when appropriate as if by magic.
Sometimes, writers get to know their characters so well they end up meeting them and putting themselves in the story, a common device employed wittily by Martin Amis in his novel Money.
Once you’ve filled a notepad with background material and written the first draft, you will then have to go back through those thousands of words editing what you have written. If there are three rules for writers: READ, READ, READ, there are three rules for second drafts: EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. My simple rule: if in doubt, cut it out.
Monsoons of crinkly dollars from best-sellers and box office hits don’t come falling out of the sky like the frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s inventive Magnolia. Writing is hard work. Harder than cleaning floors.
The post is adapted from my writing guide The Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomena