Characters and Their Stories

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When I’m pantsing my writing…which I’m trying not to do this time out.

I supposed you could call my preferred style of prose ‘character-driven’.  The way I often create stories is to put characters in a scene and try to figure out how they react — to the situation, as well as to those around them.  This reaction often drives where I’ll go with the plot next.

Noted: it’s not as if I let them run rampant in the scene to the point where I have no idea what comes next until I get there.  I just have them going from Plot Point A to Plot Point B and I pay attention to their movements and emotions.  There’s a few reasons I do it this way:

–The character is always evolving.  One of my worst errors in a lot of my early attempts at writing was that the characters had style, but they were static; they never changed.  And when they did, it felt forced.  I don’t always expect each one to change completely and irrevocably…more that I just want them to evolve in some way.

–I pay attention to how they interact with other characters and use that as part of their evolution.  A good example is Christine Gorecki from my trilogy: originally she was a one-off character, but her initial single walk-on part with Sheila and Nick worked so well that I had to expand her role considerably.  She was obviously well-loved by all the main characters that she needed an important role as well as her own personal story.

–Quite often, the interaction between the various characters gives me more background, more grist for the mill.  One character’s personality will irritate the hell out of his brother after a while, which in turn gives me a subplot dealing with the two brothers not talking to each other for a year, which in turn gives me a scene where they have to sit in the same room and talk to each other and behave.

In a way, my writing process is a mash-up of half-pantsing and half-outlining.  I have a solid (if vague) idea of where the story is supposed to head.  Lately I’ve been calling that the backbone or the spine of the story.  But I keep the movement of the story fluid, keeping it open for change and unexpected inspiration.

In the process, any major arcs in the story feel less action-driven and more personal.  The action moments end up being there for a reason; it’s less about playing plot point bingo or trying to Save the Cat and more about how life puts unexpected hurdles in our path, and how we respond to that.  Personally, I find that a MUCH more fulfilling story.

Character Evolution

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I was talking with A. earlier tonight about how often we see characters on American TV shows that don’t seem to evolve all that much.  Or if they do, it’s often on an external level instead of an internal one.  What I mean by that is that there are some characters who aren’t so much evolving as they’re reacting.  A lot of 80s shows fell prey to this, and in the process, when they did evolve for any reason, it was usually forced.  A character changed personality due to a death, or a lover leaving them; or on the positive side, they changed because they ‘saw the light’.  Sure, I’m super-generalizing here, but you get the point.  [And if they didn’t evolve, the show was usually a Perils-of-Pauline drama of the week.]

This has changed a bit over the years, and American TV has had characters evolve on different levels.  Spiritually, emotionally, and so on…they were changing and not just because of that episode’s actions.

We noticed this primarily because we don’t watch much network TV at all, preferring to watch British imports on Acorn or Netflix.  And I’ve read quite a few non-American novels over the years where character evolution is handled differently.  I sometimes think of animes like Ergo Proxy, where the female lead evolves from a stellar but snooty investigator (she’s the daughter of an extremely high-ranking leader and often thinks She’s All That) to a more empathetic hero who realizes her actions affect others.  Or AKIRA, where Tetsuo and Kaneda, both violent biker teens with death wishes, evolve to the point where they both achieve their own versions of spiritual enlightenment.

These are the kinds of characters that usually inspire me when I create my own.  I try to give them not just a background and a list of actions they must take, but a way for them to evolve somehow.  Alec Poe is a good example of this:  aloof, somewhat distant and often terse at the start of A Division of Souls to fiercely dedicated and understanding by the end of The Balance of Light.  His evolution is not just jumpstarted by the Awakening Ritual in the first book; it’s challenged numerous times throughout from those nearest to him, including friends, coworkers, and family.

It’s one of my favorite things to do when writing novels, to tell the truth.  This is a story that’s not part of the main plot, but it’s to be told anyway, through action and emotion.  It shows that the character isn’t just reacting to what’s going on, it’s affecting them to the point that they’re consciously aware they need to change in order to move forward.  It gives the novel a richer, more realistic life in the process.