Different writers have different takes on building characters.
Last week you read Melody Kaufmann’s take on Characterization, and this week we have writer Derek Flynn with his take. Would love to hear what other writers think…tell us your take in the comments!
Handing over the blog to Derek….
As aspiring writers, we all search out any and all advice on writing that we can find. When I started writing seriously, one of the pieces of advice that I saw a lot (when it came to creating characters) was to compile a list of your character’s traits, likes, dislikes, etc. Often, you would find huge lengthy lists which you were to fill in so as to get to “know” your character better. Having written for a number of years now, I can safely say these “character lists” are a complete waste of time. (In fact, they’re up there with the “Write what you know” rule. If we all only wrote what we know, there’d be no science-fiction, no fantasy, no horror, and so on. All we’d have is novels where people went to work every day, watched some TV at night, and went to the cinema at weekends. Exciting!)
Now, before I go any further, I’m not here to disabuse anyone of any techniques that work for them. Whatever floats your boat. This is just my two cents.
So why are “character lists” a waste of time?
In my time on Twitter, I’ve seen so many writers talk about a voice or a character entering their heads and how they just had to tell that character’s story.
This is very true. It happens to us all as writers; we’re inspired to write a character’s story. And we KNOW the character. We must do. They’ve inspired us enough to want to tell their story after all. We don’t know everything about them. We may not know what kind of car they drive, what they eat for breakfast or what TV shows they watch, but we know the kind of person they are. And that’s enough to begin with.
We can start the story there and as we write we will find out more about the character. Indeed, that’s the fun: watching the character grow organically as you tell the story, rather than requiring them to meet some preset list of traits. Surely, if we want to create believable characters – characters that readers will empathise with – they should react to the situations we place them in, rather than merely have them ticking off a checklist? (Drives a Porsche? Check. Eats muesli? Check. Watches True Blood? Check.)
Joseph Campbell famously outlined the journey of the “hero” character in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describing a set of stages that is common to all myths and stories.
And while this may be the case – while there may only be a finite number of plots or character types – the fact is, every character is different. Every character should react in their own idiosyncratic way to whatever situation they find themselves in.
As author Neil Gaiman has said: “I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself thinking if this is true – I don’t want to know … I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.” And I have to say, I agree with him.
Am I wrong? (It’s very possible. It wouldn’t be the first time.) Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and was First Runner-Up in the 2011 J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress. His writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – can be found here . You can also find him on Twitter .