I’m a character writer. I can’t write a story until the character chooses to appear in the black hole in the back of my mind that an entire town lives in, as far as I can tell, and starts to talk to me.
I don’t do character sketches. I don’t muse on what type of person they’ll be or how I’ll add edges to them, or make them sympathetic. (That does mean that not everyone will dig the characters I write, but that’s okay. I don’t dig everyone I meet, after all). They just happen.
Yesterday, for instance, an entirely new charactrer made themselves known to me. They’re a friend of Neeta’s in Inish Carraig. They’re skinny and streetwise and they’re going to be a handful – and I’ve yet to write their point of view yet. (I might never, but I still hear their voice). They’re one of three new characters so far, all of whom have appeared pretty well rounded from the first instance.
This means when anyone asks HOW to write a character, I find it hard to answer. I just do it. I let them talk to me. Sure, there are tricks – going into first person usually helps me find a specific voice; reading their dialogue out loud helps me to grasp their cadences – but they’re to do with writing, not the actually realisation of who the character is.
Take the difference between my main characters, for instance.
Kare is a thoughtful person (as he should be – he’s got a huge role on his shoulders). Even as a pretty irksome young adult, in denial of what he might be, he’s put thought into what he doesn’t want (more than what he does want, to be fair). He is prone to going off and musing to himself, in expanding on his take on the world. He can, quite frankly, be hard to get moving, preferring to think first and then take action.
John, in Inish Carraig, is a different kettle of fish entirely. One day, one day, one day, he will actually take time to think before taking off on me. Writing him is exhausting. I struggle to keep up with him. It makes me hugely sympathetic for Carter, who is constantly dealing with the mayhem that ensues. I’m writing Inish Carraig 2 at the moment and, as with book one, the main character’s agency, energy and activity is not the problem. Slowing down to breathe might be (which is where writing third person is, for me, easier – I can use a more reflective point of view, in Carter or Josey to balance John’s pace)
Now, it could be argued that this character differentiation is down to the type of story I’m telling, but I’m not sure it is. Could Inish Carraig be told with a less active character – yes, of course it could. The book would be different, possibly less popular, but it would still be a tale of an alien invasion of Northern Ireland. If Kare was a more gung-ho character, the world of Abendau would still exist although the structures and norms might have to adapt to a different Emperor’s nature. So, I think it’s only partly that, and more nuanced.
Just as history is shaped by the figures in place at any given time, so too is a story. The characters impact the story and the story them – and that is adapted and changed based on how they react, and what the world does around that reaction.
Amy in Waters and the Wild is a great example of that, actually. She is the character I’ve written with the least agency, and yet the biggest personal impact on other characters. Amy is the centre of all the point of views, in a way that neither John nor Kare is. Sonly and Lichio, Carter and Josey – they are as focused on the wider plot and world as much as on Kare and John, but in Waters it’s all about Amy and her story.
So, if I can’t help with that part of writing, what about the actual process of writing the book. Can I tell you how to do that, and at least earn my keep?
Well, no. I could tell you that some people plan and some write, and that I tend to be in the latter. But I can’t actually tell you how that sitting down to write becomes a scene.
Picture this, if you will. After the invasion, Portstewart has become a slightly-frontier-town, with a close knit town suspicious of strangers, some weird fashion stuff going on (I’m waiting for some kooky post-invasion knitting guru to appear to explain it all), and a sense of isolationism. I didn’t exactly plan that – although I did want to capture the wildness of the Nun’s Walk, and the possibility of what nature might have done, unhindered for over a year. In this Portstewart, I needed a car chase.
I sat down to write it. That was pretty much all I knew: the point of view character (John), the other two characters (Mary and Pat, both from the town), and the setting (Portstewart). And then I typed and the words fell out, one after the other, and then we had a mini North-West 200 going on (a motorcyle race, as Mary kindly explained to John). And the next thing I knew 1000 words are down and I’m blinking. I got to where I wanted to be, storywise. But I had no idea that the scene that came out of my mind was how I was going to get there. I started to type, the words appeared, pretty much without me stopping once. I have two other scenes I want to write now, and they’re much the same. Formed in a shadowy shape that will only take form when my fingers start racing across the keyboard and words come out of me.
That’s part of why I believe a writer has a voice, however – whatever shape their mind likes to tell stories in forms subconsciously, making it hard to remove that formation of language and thought and focus from the final part.
So, there you go. Possibly the most useless blog on process, ever, anywhere. Because I don’t know how it works. I’ve never known. But I have learned, over my must-be-near-my-million words to just trust it. To let it roll, and then let the scene explode.