Writing Beautiful and Unique Snowflakes
‘…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.