Characters—Where Do They Come From?

Nothing can come out of a writer’s head that did not go into it. In my head magic happens. Characters and their characteristics get mixed like the colors on a 1960’s tie-dyed T-shirt.  The characters are made up of bits and pieces of people I know well, people I’ve met, people I’ve heard about and a few decades of people I’ve only met between the covers of a book.

Then the characters change right before my eyes as parts of their unique personalities are revealed by the story events they are forced to endure. My novels are about many things, but the setting for the ones actually finished centers around The Proving Zone. The proving zone is a large section on the planet with diverse climates and areas as well and some other fine problems. The characters must walk from the entry gate to the final step, one thousand miles, to get a sterilization implant removed. If you don’t go, you can’t have children. 

My little head thought it would be funny if a very vane person who liked to be perfectly groomed, and had died hair, had to go through the zone and how it would be accomplished. Obviously things are pretty primitive since you have to walk. It will also take a while. Those roots will need to be touched up to maintain that perfect façade. I thought it would be hysterically funny if her packet of hair dye exploded because it got too hot.


As I wrote the story, it became obvious immediately that this person had to be perfect in image to survive. She had to perform perfectly or suffer severe punishment from her family and the person her family had put in charge of her from infancy. An exploding hair dye packet put her in a near catatonic state. It wasn't funny at all! It was catastrophic and for that character life-threatening!

And then imagine the man she went through the zone with. What would he do when faced with such perfection and such a situation where he didn’t have the faintest clue what the problem was.

And then how will these two people manage to survive the zone, survive understanding each other, and understanding the changes life brings. Does their relationship as it develops with one set of rules, morphs into another? These people are obviously going through difficulties of which I have no certain knowledge of real people, but as the character’s personalities are revealed, then their actions and motivations become clear.

I find that the characters are molded more around the ‘theme’ of the story—of which I am also in ignorance until it is revealed by my innermost storyteller.

I am in awe of storytellers and the different ways their brains manufacture fine tales to entertain the rest of us. I wonder how it could ever be taught in a school setting. Indeed, I imagine that school settings of learning storytelling are quite often very wrong for the way a brain comes up with the story. Not that a person couldn’t learn the parts of what stories are, but when you find out there are people who re-arrange cards to write, and others who write the ending before the beginning or whatever their brain’s method might be, I think that explaining the iffy-oddity of the way writerly stuff is expressed from any one writerly brain might be nice to know for beginning writers. I would think it would cut down on the frustration of trying to fit your personal storyteller square peg into a certain sized round hole. Sometimes my writerly peg is star shaped!

Since most of my characters pop out of my inner writerly brain, I have very little control over the mix as written. I realize my fingers write, but my writerly brain is happier and actually works when unfettered by reality. Take my non-happy brain and it has two characters stuck in a floating unmoving ship for six years. My daughter told me to set fire to the ship and see what happens....

Learning about my particular writerly ability has been a long unfinished journey with a lot of wonderful handholding and long conversations with other WARA members. I no longer fear what comes out of my brain, nor am I concerned with immediate psychiatric incarceration.


Joan Vincent said...

I know just what you mean when yu write "Since most of my characters pop out of my inner writerly brain, I have very little control over the mix as written. I realize my fingers write, but my writerly brain is happier and actually works when unfettered by reality." Often it seems my characters write the story--they certainly let me know when it isn't going the way they want. I love your "writerly"mind!