Years ago, before I was ever published, I was at a convention where Gordy Dickson was answering writing questions for a mob of would-be hopefuls. And somebody asked the “how do I write deep characters?” question, and I was kind of disappointed in the answer, because it was all basic stuff I already knew. I wanted something more than that.
In the interest of not making the same mistake, I decided to do a follow on post to the one I did Wednesday on getting depth into your characters. It’s still a two-part problem – first, knowing your characters; second, getting that down on the page. I think that’s part of what makes it so difficult for some writers…and such a difficult question for experienced writers to answer. Because nobody is equally good at both parts, and when someone asks you “How do I…?” you usually don’t know which part of the problem they’re having trouble with, and they can’t tell you because they’ve never thought about it that way.
The other problem is that for a lot of writers, me included, both things happen at more or less the same time. Those who are before or after writers – who make up your characters in depth and in detail in advance, or who finish a first draft and only then go back and add characterization – tend not to have this problem, and occasionally give those of us who do have it funny looks.
But if you are one of those folks who finds out about characters by writing them, you’re basically trying to do both things at once: figure out things about your characters and get them down on the page. This means that, especially in the early parts of a book, you have to constantly be aware (on some level) of exactly what each individual would do (and possibly why) in the particular situation. “What each individual would do” encompasses actions, dialog, reactions, stage business – everything you might be able to say about the character at any given time.
In addition, you also have to be aware of opportunities to tell the reader more/find out more about each character. This is a little different from being aware of what they’d do in a particular situation, because “what would she do here?” is focused on the now of the story, and the characters actions/reactions to the important onstage events. Opportunities are … more general. They’re places where you can slip in a bit of backstory or sidestory or personality, but you don’t really have to.
For instance, say I’m writing a scene with George, Janet, and Cindy, with George as the viewpoint character. The three of them are searching the library for the missing will, when George discovers a bag of crack cocaine hidden behind the encyclopedias.
At this point, I have to decide how everyone is going to react, specifically. In an actual book, I’d know these people to some degree already, so I’d know that George would make a shocked noise and wonder whether he should touch it or tell the two women (since he’s the POV, I can give his thoughts), that Janet wouldn’t even look up from the shelves she’s going through as she says “If you have found something, do articulate it clearly instead of making pig-like grunting noises,” and that Cindy will immediately come over to see what it is, probably knocking something over on her way. In other words, George is a well-meaning, kind of fussy prig, and totally out of his depth; Janet is a bit snarky and doesn’t like George much; and Cindy is a bit of a curious puppy.
Those are the specific actions each of the characters take – physical actions, dialog, emotional reaction for the viewpoint character. They need to reflect what each character is like as an individual coping with whatever is currently happening right in front of them, and they need to be consistent with the way the character has been portrayed in the story so far. When George says “It’s not the will; it’s a bag of drugs,” does Janet drop the book she’s holding, or does she freeze and then set it back on the shelf with careful precision before she comes over? Does Cindy stand there staring wide-eyed, or does she babble questions? Either I already know (because of what I’ve written so far), or I have to think about all the myriad ways each of them could react, and then decide which one is right for the particular character.
In addition, the scene gives me an opportunity to reveal extra stuff about one or more of the characters. Maybe Janet orders everyone not to touch the bag and Cindy grumbles that she watches too many cop shows; maybe George’s second thought, after he gets over the shock, is to wonder whether the cops will let him go in time to feed the dog I didn’t know he had until now. I don’t have to put in anything about Janet’s obsession with cop shows or George’s dog (or is it a cat, or maybe a bird? A cockatiel, perhaps? That’d be interestingly different…).
Neither the cop show obsession nor the cockatiel is, at present, relevant to the main storyline. They don’t even exist yet…but if I put them in here, I will have to deal with them, one way or another, for the rest of the story. They probably won’t matter…but they might develop as the story goes along.
The point is, I really do need to give the actions and reactions to finding the drugs when they search the library, but I don’t particularly need to mention the cockatiel or the cop shows, or have Cindy start babbling about her cousin who pawned his mother’s wedding ring to buy drugs fifteen years ago. The situation gives me a chance to bring them up (or invent them on the fly) if I want to, but that’s all. The situation doesn’t really lend itself to mentioning Janet’s interest in chess, or George’s fly-fishing hobby, or the fact that Cindy volunteers at the local animal shelter; other scenes may provide opportunities to mention those things…or not.
If all I do is to provide each character with an individual voice and unique but characteristic reactions/behaviors, I’ll have characters who are interesting, but perhaps a little flat. If I pick up on every single opportunity that arises to shoehorn in irrelevant-but-interesting background details, the book will almost certainly bog down and perhaps grind to a halt. The trick is to find the right balance, for the characters and for the story, between too much detail and too little.