by Rachel Coker
I’m a homeschooler, and, if you know anything about the homeschool community, you know that we like to make jokes about ourselves all the time. We’re very hilarious people. Anyway, one of the jokes we homeschoolers make is about how utterly unsocialized and deprived we are. Usually these jokes are made whilst juggling multiple dates, commitments, and parties on the calendar. We’ll laugh at our overwhelmingly busy lives and say to each other, “Gosh, aren’t we so unsocialized?”
But it gets worse. Because not only am I an unsocialized homeschooler, I am also a complete weirdo who is best friends with fictional characters.
That’s right. I count among my closest companions people who aren’t real. But you know what? I’m a writer. That’s what writers do. We befriend and tell stories about people who only exist in our imaginations. But you know what else? If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a writer, too. Which means you are just as messed up as me!
But seriously, what I want to talk about today is how important it is to really know your characters. To feel like they are your best friends and to understand them that well. You see, stories are about people. Sure, they are also about events and actions and emotions but at the core of every story are the people who make it up. They are the ones you sympathize with, who you despise, who you cheer on and support. Bad character development can not only strain a story, it can unravel it.
If a story is a quilt, then the characters are surely the threads that make it up. When you look at it as a whole, you see events and a plot—the big picture or design. But when you push your nose up a little closer, tiny threads and pulls and seams come into focus. These are the traits and emotions and quirks that pull the story together. Every person and every character trait has a reason, a function. Every little detail is necessary to keep the piece together.
When I was first thinking about the plot for my book, Interrupted, Allie’s character was constantly running through my mind. It’s a funny thing, being a writer. I could visualize her in my head. I could hear the way her voice sounds. I knew her quirks and her faults. One thing I remember being really convinced of when I was filling out my character chart for Allie. Allie was going to have rough hands. Since she was looking after her mother, her hands were the ones subjected to burns and cuts and bruises. Her mother’s hands were white and smooth. Hers were rough and worn.
Even though this particular aspect wasn’t a huge part of the book, it was very crucial to my development of Allie’s character. Her story was a story of rough hands. It was about endurance and toughness and not letting anyone see her cry. She wasn’t a soft hands kind of person. Once I realized this, other parts of the story started clicking together in my mind. She would respond to certain situations like a calloused hand. She wore her toughness like a blister, hiding the soft skin underneath. Instantly, I knew exactly how her reactions to certain circumstances and plot twists would be.
While this kind of character development may be a little anal on my part, I do know that it is a huge part of being a writer. That’s why we writers must go to extremes to develop our characters. Now what I’m about to say is going to sound a little strange, but please, bear with me:
I want you to date your characters.
(Obviously, this is a messed-up analogy, especially if your main character is a girl, but please—bear with me) When two people are in love and want to be married, where is the first place they start? They get to know each other. They find out what the other’s likes and dislikes are. They want to know their partner’s little quirks. What makes them laugh or cry or blush. They date.
|Wrong approach, by the way ;)|
This may sound really weird to those of you who have never written fiction before, or who view their characters as a flat, two-dimensional object. They’re just words typed out and written on a page, nothing but stark black letters against a white background, and can change pretty much however you want them to. If that’s how you think, then stop. If that’s how you really view your characters, then your story will never have the heart that you want it to.
"Date" your characters. Really get to know them. Think about habits you’ve already given them, and consider where those habits may lead. Characters are people, too. On the outside, they may seem like one thing. But once you push past the exterior and really take a look inside, you realize that they are a lot deeper than you may have thought. They have hopes and dreams and fears. Every little thing that they have gone through has shaped them into who they are today and prepared them for the trials they are facing right now. They have a story to tell, a story that you have to record. And even though you know you can’t do it justice, you have to write it anyway.
That is writing. It’s not sitting down with a piece of paper and pencil and determining to pen the next Narnia or Lord of the Rings. It’s discovering your characters. “Meeting new people”, so to speak. And pushing through, no matter how difficult it may seem, to uncover their story and telling it the best you can. And I can guarantee you that once you can do that, you will sit back and realize that you have just written a wonderful book.