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Writing Beautiful and Unique Snowflakes

May 10, 2011

‘…you’re not how much money you’ve got in the bank.  You’re not your job.  You’re not your family, and you’re not who you tell yourself…. You’re not your name…. You’re not your problems…. You’re not your age…. You are not your hopes.’
~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, Chapter 18

Writing courses and sites often espouse the need to know everything about your characters. There is much talk about making character profiles or filling in checklists, as if knowing what cereal your character prefers is the key to getting a handle on them. Admittedly, sometimes you need a piece of minutia to help you negotiate a scene, but really, is knowing/not knowing your character’s shoes size or eye colour or favourite toilet roll going to make or break your story?

When we read, we meet the characters in increments, the author choosing when to reveal key elements to us. Character unfolds like petals from a flower, the bright sweep of who the character is appearing slowly over the course of events. They will be as mysterious to us as the stranger we pass on the street at first; the more time we spend with them, watching them, the more we will grow to know them. If done right, the character will change over the course of the novel/short story/movie. But we don’t need to know everything about the character at the beginning of a story. It spoils the fun. Imagine watching The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense for the the first time with all the character details up front, it breaks the story.

I prefer to write in the same way. I start most of my stories with an idea of my characters, a detail or two about them, usually something visual. Then I jump in and see what they show me. Over the course of a first draft I will get to know my characters in much the same way as I do when reading other writer’s work. By the time I reach the end I have a greater sense of who they are and this provides the key focus of my first major edit, to go back and make sure I have properly presented the character throughout. Sometimes, while writing, I realise the first impression I had of them was way off and I find them saying or doing something that does not fit with this clearer picture. This is, for me, what writers mean when a character begins to come alive and dictating what they will do in a given situation. It’s not some kind of fictional voodoo, rather the clearer idea of the character developing as you write pointing out that what you originally thought they would do in a given situation is wrong.

Which brings me to my opening quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s still unmatched debut novel, Fight Club. Character, in writing as in life, is not found in the colour of the eyes, or the favourite cereal, or in the job a person does, but in their actions, what they would do in any given situation. That’s why I prefer to know little about my characters when I start. I want them to show me who they are in what they do. In my story Half-mown Lawn, I knew very little about Annie except that she had been married to the same man for many, many years and then he died. The depth of her grief was revealed to me as I followed her around after the funeral, and she showed it in her reaction to the many tiny events that go to make up an ordinary evening. By the end of writing that story I knew Annie very well. Well enough to know the secret reason for her powerful and terrible grief that, while not relevant to the story I tell in Half-mown Lawn, may at some point fuel another story with Annie as main character. Over the course of writing 1,500 words about her I got to know everything about her marriage before the story and her how life develops after its ending. She showed me who she was in what she did.

Character is action. It’s the heart of that perennial writing advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ Show the reader your character through what they say and what they do. And only show them what they need to see. The characters that live with us from the books we love are those that we grew to know ever more deeply over the course of reading their story. These are the kinds of characters we should be trying to write. To paraphrase Palahniuk: Characters are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. Except when they do or say something that only they would.

  1. May 10, 2011 11:18 am

    Excellent post which for me strikes at the heart of some of the clumsier writing out there, beginning with a shopping list of characteristics which is absolutely tell-don’t-show.

    I think the cookie-cutter style of character development e.g. age, job, favorite country walk etc does have its place e.g. as a tool for beginning writers (or stuck writers) but we should all soon graduate/evolve to a deeper understanding of what makes someone tick. I’d agree that somethings even writers don’t discover about their characters until the end, which (thankfully) makes the process more interesting.

  2. May 10, 2011 3:43 pm

    This is how I approach my characters! I have one character from a short story I love that I still know very little about as far as physical appearance goes. I don’t need to know, and neither does anyone else. I don’t know his favourite drink, but I do know how he acts in a bad situation. I do know that he loves his wife. Those were the things I needed to know. The only time I’ve done a character checklist it felt forced and artificial.

  3. May 10, 2011 11:32 pm

    Love your idea of a slowly developing charecter, and the ‘shoe size’ remarks were quite true, I think. I think the charecters are the most importent part of a story, so I like to add something; What we do is often dictated by our ideas and values, with books we are lucky that we can look inside their heads, hence; their thought prosses is as importent as their actions, ty erling

  4. May 11, 2011 12:32 am

    Wonderful post, Dan. I do this, too, feeling under the skin of the characters in the first draft. I’ve learned over the years that the first draft of a story (or novel, in my case) is really an introduction exercise (as well as seeing where the plot goes, too). I’ve learned to be patient in that process. Your post captures that beautifully, as well as that complex layering system which means that, as readers, we only see on the surface a fraction of what is beneath.

  5. May 11, 2011 5:44 am

    @Hamish – making discoveries about my characters is my favourite part of the writing process. A character that is capable of surprising its author should really engage the reader .

    @Stacey – I’ve written plenty of characters without describing their dress or appearence. As you say, the actions/feelings of the character are the most important things to know. Show the reader what’s important and they’ll fill in the rest, each reader creating their own unique vision of the character.

    @ty erling – You’re spot on. Being able to show the characters inner life is the real strength of the prose fiction over other forms.

    @Rachel – like you I am learning to be more patient with my process, feeling my way into the story. My first drafts are, as you describe, me finding out where the story and the characters go. Subsequent drafts are fueled by what I learn during the initial flurry of writing.

  6. May 14, 2011 6:40 pm

    Thanks for this post — was just struggling with a character issue today, and this calmed me down tremendously!

  7. May 15, 2011 8:05 am

    Excellent Post! It is truly difficult to justify massive character constructions prior to a draft against the advice to only include relevant details in the story. How would you know what is relevant before you write it? Having a starting point and allowing the character to develop idiosyncrasies and inner character organically seems more efficient.

  8. May 19, 2011 3:06 am

    Yes! Yes, absolutely! I want to say something more intelligent and considered, but it seems nodding lots and saying “yes! Exactly!” is all I’m capable of right now 🙂

    Actually, I think this filled me with such glee because I have seen that advice given to writers in the past and have always been instantly repelled by it. You have described the reason why.

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