Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Do your characters know more than you do?

Ana’s post earlier this week about the writer’s‘subconscious’ triggered several thoughts about how your subconscious can be at work while you write a story.

I’ve never been one for defining my characters before I begin to write, despite the advice in some ‘how to write’ articles about making a long list of all your characters physical attributes, upbringing, education, family, traits, habits, attitudes, fears, secrets etc. etc. I prefer to find out about my characters as I write their story. I see it as a similar process to getting to know a person in real life i.e. you gradually discover more things about them.

To continue the analogy, when we meet someone new, obviously we can ‘see’ them. For me, it’s the same with my characters. I don’t need to write a list of their physical attributes because I can see them in my mind almost as soon as (or even before) I actually start to write. In ‘Her Only Option’, for instance, I had a picture of Ross from the first moment I visualised my (as yet unnamed) ‘hero’ vaulting over the rails from one cruise ship to another. In ‘Changing the Future’ I ‘saw’ Paul walking along the pathway at the college at the same time as the heroine first saw him. It's almost as if they decide on their appearance and then appear in my inner vision.

I also feel that writing a detailed account of their background beforehand can sometimes lead a writer into including too much irrelevant detail about them (which I’ve seen in some novels). Instead, I let them tell me what’s actually necessary. In one of my current WIPs, Luke is a veterinary surgeon – and later I learnt (from him, and over several chapters!) that he’d been brought up at a local farm, his parents had been killed in a car crash a few years earlier, and when the local vet retired, he’d been able to use some of his inheritance from his parents to buy the practice. I hadn’t worked any of this out beforehand, but he explained it perfectly! Or maybe that was my subconscious at work? He hasn't yet told me how he came to meet his American ex-wife, but I'm sure he will eventually!

Some pro-forma outlines for character sketches ask you to list their favourite colour, animal, food, books, music, art etc! I wouldn’t know where to start with this, and don’t really see the point of listing such things. IF any of that information is needed, then the characters reveal it as and when necessary. In my recently completed ‘Dream of Paris’, I couldn’t have told you when I first started writing that Matt’s favourite singer was Edith Piaf. He told me that information later in the story, when one of Piaf’s songs came to have a special meaning for him and the heroine.

My very first experience of a character telling me something I didn’t know actually happened in my first book, published in the 1960’s. By the time I got to the end of the story, I realised the heroine’s ex-boyfriend needed a happy ending of his own, rather than being left out in the cold. After some thinking, I decided he had met someone else on a business trip to New York but had ended their brief relationship because he’d still been involved with the heroine at that time. Okay, so I needed to go back and add some ‘hints’ about this. Except that, no, I didn’t need to add anything. The hints were actually all there in the things he said and did – but I hadn’t picked up on them. I didn’t need to add anything at all.

Is that my subconscious at work, or do my characters really know more than I do, and simply reveal it at the right time?


  1. I'm with you, Paula. I don't outline my characters ahead of time usually. They pretty much appear in my head. Sometimes I'll take notes about them so I don't forget something and sometimes I'll fill out a questionnaire just to get deeper into their heads, but that's about it.

  2. Must admit I've never filled in a questionnaire about any of my characters, Jen. Maybe I'll do it one day - it might surprise me LOL!
    I might make notes to remind me that a character's office is on the first floor (and similar facts like that) but their personalities somehow become ingrained in me, so I end up knowing them as much as I know myself!

  3. I definitely discover my characters as I go. Sometimes that means I have to go back and do some tweaking to the beginning of the book if I wrote it before I had a good handle on either the hero or the heroine. Usually one is more defined before I write and the other comes along as I go.

  4. It seems like we work in the same way, Debra - finding out about our characters as we write their story. Must admit I love that 'finding out' - especially when they tell me things and I stop and think 'Oh? Really? Yeah, that makes sense' or even 'Omigod, I never realised that!'

  5. I do the character profiles before I do my plot outline. I get many ideas this way. I am not one of the lucky ones who can visualize the characters presto. I am blocked at that.
    I do, however, give myself full permission to let the characters speak to me at any time. If they want to change something I've got on my profile sheet, they do.
    I am coming to like the idea of finding images, magazine or digital printout, of the main characters (and setting) and having those tacked onto the wall next to my desk.

  6. Everyone works differently, Ana. I think the important thing is to let your characters speak and act as they become real in your mind.
    I don't trend to find pictures beforehand, but there's been times when I see a picture of someone and realise that's how I imagine my characters. It happened to me in Dublin when I saw an advert for Guinness merchandise, and the male and female models were exactly as I'd imagined them in 'Fragrance of Violetsd' _ I remember looking at the poster in a shop on O'Connell Street, and thinking 'That's Jack and Abbey'!

  7. Great post, Paula. I absolutely could not write a character sketch or questionnaire before writing, as my characters unfold during the story - or maybe I just keep everything in my subconscious and it appears when needed!

  8. It's the same for me, Rosemary - and I still haven't worked out whether I direct my characters or whether they direct me!

  9. I always recall my first serious attempt to write a publishable book. It was a contemporary but, probably influenced by all those Georgette Heyer's I'd read, I wanted a cynical, sardonic rakish hero. He turned out to be a very upright and restrained, if secretive, individual. And it was published!

    I was then and still am an into the mist type of writer. I have no idea how my cast of characters will reach the end of the story, and even what the end of the story will be.
    What I do know up to a point, by the time I set fingers to keypad,is the back-story of my characters and the scenario in which they're brought together. That's the thing I think about quite a lot before embarking on a book. But as for the detail of their personalities - yes, I might know some headline facts, but I won't know the nuances.

  10. Wonderful blog, Paula. I agree with every word. I don't need to make detailed notes about my characters before hand, in fact, couldn't do that. Sometimes, as I write their story, a remark one makes may come to me long before that part of the book. If so, I write it down and know that the place will come where it will fit and it always does! If I can get my characters talking to each other, they take over the story and run with it. And then all I have to do is record their words, actions, and feelings.

  11. I think while it is important to know what drives your characters, I agree it is important to let them take the wheel. If you know them inside out before putting pen to paper, then there is a danger for the story to become rigid.
    Sometimes the best ideas come out of the unexpected and unplanned - especially if the characters have led the way.
    By the end of my debut novel, A Girl's Guide to Fairy Tales, I felt I had got to know my heroines as friends. I hope it will be like this for every project I undertake.
    Writing should be fun and it's nice to for the author to have a few surprises as well as the readers.
    Great post Paula

  12. Gilli - as usual you have summed it up perfectly - headline facts but not the nuance - I love that!

    Linda - yes, you're right, the characters run with their story and reveak themselves.

    Laurey - I completely agree, characters 'defined' beforehand cna become too rigid. I remember reading a novel where the author had decided the hero exercised strong control over himself and his feelings- and I got fed-up of reading of how he was 'aroused but unable to control it' etc - he became kind of one-dimensional as a result.
    I love the surprises my characters can give me!

  13. The only things I write down about my characters is how to spell their name, sometimes their birth date if important. I visualize them too. Like recently, walking up on Miss Rose Coffin's house, hearing her singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus and watching her come to the door, wiping her hands on her apron. No she comes into my dreams and I relive her life -- even events that will have nothing to do with the book. I feel like a shrink for made up people :)

  14. It's eerie, isn't it, Paula? The concept is very difficult to explain to non-writers, and sometimes even writers. I know someone who plots every detail of the book out, and she won't begin writing until she has it all down on paper in outline form, and maybe even chapter headings. I cannot envision this. Since no one know this person except me, I can say her characters don't come to life--they just sort of move through the book--characters on a page, but not in my head or heart.
    So, I do understand you.
    People ask me all the do you think up a story? The most often think I know the whole story before I begin--if I try to tell them otherwise, their eyes glaze over. So, I do not try to explain, just say...I don't know.
    Excellent post, as usual, Paula.

  15. Celia, I love your comment about characters not coming to life but moving through a book. I've seen examples of this too. Too much advance plotting can, IMO, make an author concentrate too much on the plot development, rather than on the character development. I love it when my characters take me along with them into a different avenue. Sometimes they can do it with a single comment. As you say, non-writers (some writers too) haven't the faintest idea what we mean by this!