Since I’m at the beginning of a new project, I thought it would be a good time to record and share some of my processes. First up – character development, because you can’t have a good book without great characters!
If you read enough how-to-write books or do courses, you’ll come across a number of methods of character creation. The worst, IMHO, is what I call the “Dungeons and Dragons” approach, whereby you detail all kinds of trivia up front: height, build, eye colour, hair colour, distinguishing marks, and so on. Boring, boring and usually irrelevant at the planning stage of a novel. Usually. Sometimes a character’s physical appearance is important to the story – I knew I wanted Coby Hendricks in A Mirror for London to be blond so it’s less obvious she has no facial hair (since she’s disguised as a boy) – but often it really doesn’t matter too much. And whilst you do need to know these things during revisions, so you can ensure consistency, for the most part they can be allowed to develop as you write, or at least emerge out of the process of developing the character’s personality.
Most instructions do move on to character personality and background, of course, but again it tends to be a highly structured “fill in the blanks” exercise, because this is far easier to present. Sometimes it’s almost as specific as the D&D method, particularly in books aimed at writers of any kind of fiction: where did he/she go to school, what does the character’s bedroom look like, describe his/her first kiss. A lot of these are simply useless to writers of SF&F, where characters often don’t go to school and may have few personal possessions – and who cares about first kisses unless you’re writing romance???
The better questionnaires focus on character motivation. Holly Lisle’s “How to Think Sideways” course is like this, posing questions like “What’s the one thing this character would sacrifice anything for?” and “What one event made him/her a better person?” – but I still find these too specific and structured. My Muse freezes up and says “How the heck should I know? I only met this person a couple of days ago!”
So what’s a girl to do? I find that my characters only come alive when they start talking (preferably to one another), so I’ve hit upon a technique which exploits that. In my planning notebook I write a first person monologue from the point of view of the character I’m working on, letting it meander from topic to topic like a stream of consciousness. It’s totally unstructured, but that lets my Muse throw in ideas unfettered by someone else’s opinion of what makes a rounded character.
And it’s working! I had been toying with various names for my svartalf protagonist and unsure about which one to choose, but the monologue brought the issue to a head in no uncertain terms. My name is Ember she wrote because although I am black as coal on the outside, I burn within. (I say she wrote that – obviously it was me, but I was merely transcribing the images pouring out of my right-brain.) At that moment she came alive for me, and everything else, including her personality and motivation, fell into place.
Anyway, if you’re struggling with character development, give it a go. Make it a friendly conversation in the pub after a few beers, not an interrogation, and the characters will tell you all about themselves. Probably in more detail than you ever expected – or wanted!