Guest blogger: Bree Verity
When characters take on a life of their own
Different authors use different methods to develop their characters. Some characters arrive fully formed in an author’s head, ready to be thrown under a bus (metaphorically, of course). Some use questionnaires or interviews to flesh out their characters. Some develop characters before the plot, and others plot prior to building characters.
I usually start my stories with a situation, a year and a place.
My characters start with a spark, a personality trait—snarky, or loyal, or sunny. Usually at this moment I don’t even really know what they look like—sometimes I get a glimpse of dark hair or flashing green eyes, but apart from that, they exist in a shadow in my mind.
Then, other traits will shoot off the original one. The snarky girl will also be mechanically minded, impetuous and creative. The loyal one will be gracious and conflicted. The sunny one is hard-working, opinionated and stubborn.
Their features grow with their personalities. Hair colour will usually come first, along with eye colour and body shape. I start to ‘see’ the person, along with their personality, and get an idea of how they would dress, what they see when they look out into the world, their basic understanding of themselves.
Then, I start to say to them, ‘What if you were to …’
‘What if you were to time travel to the past?’
‘What if you were to be asked to harbour a fugitive?’
‘What if you started to see ghosts?’
Novels really are a series of things that happen to people, and the people’s response to those things. It’s fascinating to unfold.
But more fascinating is how the story feels wrong when the writer tries to make the character do something against their personality. It creates a dissonance, a bell pealing out of tune, a sour taste in the mouth.
Because after they’ve been through enough development, the characters really do take on a life of their own.
I recently wrote a scene where I had the hero breaking down in tears and begging for help. My goodness, he hated me for that. It felt like I used ‘the Force’ and pushed him, resisting all the way, on to his knees. It felt wrong, and it read wrong and it was just everything that was wrong, wrong, wrong.
It took me several edits to realise that was where the problem with the scene lay. As the author god, I do enjoy bringing my subjects to abject devastation. But this particular hero slowly and painfully lifted his head, looked me in the eye and said clearly, ‘No’.
So, with a tiny bit of kicking and screaming myself, I cut three paragraphs from the scene, and instead had him a little bit flustered, before finding his way again.
Incidentally, this guy is 6’3”, muscular, broad shouldered and broad everything-else-as-well, with jet black hair and jet black eyes—that I managed to stand up to him for so long is amazing. I’m surprised he didn’t kick my backside into submission long ago.
Anyway, with those three paragraphs removed, he was free to take his buddy and go save the girl, without having to sacrifice a piece of his personality to do it. Strangely enough, the story also worked a whole lot better from that point forward. I know right? Go figure.
Another one—I have a grumpy woman in one of my many unwritten plotlines who is chosen to travel through time to fix things being done by another traveller. At first, I thought this would mean she would have to be someone who likes to travel, right?
Actually digging deeper, it turns out she’s more of a homebody, and her grumpiness is because she hates time travelling, and only wants to get done what needs to get done so she can go home again.
This scrap of understanding about her character will change just about every word I write for her, when the time comes for her story to be written.
So, are you hearing the distant clang of discordant bells? Is there a particularly sour taste in your mouth?
Perhaps the characters in the book you are reading are being forced by their author to do things they would never really do?
Bree Verity grew up on a diet of romance, old movies and musicals. It’s no wonder she ended up writing love stories—she’s a sucker for a happy ending.
She lives in Perth, Western Australia, with her teenage son, her long-suffering partner, and her two rescue dogs, Millie and Boofhead. She keeps it very quiet from them that she is equally a cat person.
She dreams of travelling the world, going off-grid and building a tiny house, although she realises she would very quickly go crazy in a confined space.
She has published two novels in contemporary romance, Perth Girls—Amanda, and Perth Girls—Lydia. Her first historical romance, The Hidden Duchess, will be published by Passion in Print in July 2017.
Amanda accidentally criticizes saxophonist Aidan within his earshot, and is forced to back up her jibe by offering to beat him in a saxophone duel. Only problem is, Amanda hasn’t picked up her sax in years. She invents reasons why the competition can’t go ahead, but with each glimpse of Aidan, Amanda gets more and more hot and bothered…
Aidan is peeved when he overhears Amanda, but her great body and sparkling personality quickly overshadow any annoyance he felt.
Their relationship starts up and moves along nicely, but when Aidan finds out Amanda is after his spot in the band, can he forgive her betrayal?