I read an excellent post the other day by Alan Chin where he talks about how he creates his characters and how well he knows them. He knows everything from their political persuasion to what hand they use to do what and it was a wonderful insight into how writes work.
I feel such a fraud at times, when I see this level of craft that authors use. I think that I should be working like this. Alex Beecroft has blogged about how she plots every chapter, every scene onto cards and ends up with a whole novel worked out in advance, and then I look at my PC screen and… well, all I have is a WIP which grows—or not—like Topsy.
I did try the character fact-sheet route. After Standish I sat down and started to map out character fact sheets for the two Space Opera merchants that I was planning a series of short stories for, but I only got a few lines down on the first guy before I came to a grinding halt. I DIDN’T know about the character. I knew—roughly—what he looked like: a disarming grin, tousled hair, dark-brown eyes, but that was about it. I had no idea what he’d do in a pinch, because I hadn’t actually created that pinch in which he’d have to do anything. I didn’t know what he thought about puppies and rainbows or whether he got space-sick or whether he’d had sex with women, or anything at all.
I looked at the character sheet, and as so often happens, I felt inadequate. Like I was playing at this, and wasn’t prepared to put the work in. Then I wrote the story anyway and found out more than I ever would have done by giving the character his traits in advance.
You see, to me, writing (and reading) a novel is like making a friend (or getting to know a foe) in real life. When you first meet what MIGHT become your significant other, or your next bosom buddy or the bane of your life, you know little about them. You may have some third hand knowledge from another friend, perhaps they’ve arranged the meeting and you’ll know what they look like, or that he’s vegetarian, but until you’re out together on your own it’s all hearsay, and anyway, how he acts with other people isn’t going to be exactly how he’s going to act with you. Each time you meet you’ll get to know a little more and a little more—and you’ll never get to know the whole package, even if you kid yourself that you will.
So writing is like that for me. I don’t know that person as he hits the page. He might be running (and I don’t even know from what, or where to) – he might be sitting at a desk, he might be in the middle of an argument, he might be lying naked by a river. All I see is the image and as he continues to run, lies thinking in the grass, muses about his poverty, or stops his car at a hotel – until he starts to think and interact with his environment I know as little about him as the reader who is reading it faster than I can write it. Until I throw caltrops in his path I haven’t got a clue how he’ll cope—whether he’s brave or cowardly, whether he knows any kind of fighting, whether he’s corrupt or has a good soul.
I know this probably sounds like madness to those organised and hard-working authors out there, but it’s unthinkable for me any other way. I’ve found that once I DO KNOW what’s going on with my plot I find it difficult to write, because as far as I’m concerned it’s already happened and I wish someone else would write it down. Same with characters – they’ve got to keep part of their mystery for me, all the way through, even to the end, or I just lose interest in them, which – *laughs * – probably explains many of my endings….