On Imagination and Characters

Rainbow clouds

I recently had dinner with friends who wanted to know how I make up characters in my writing. I don’t remember the more-than-likely lame answer I gave them about making fictional composites of people and personalities … blah, blah, blah.  I probably blathered on about rainbows and kittens just to avoid what has always plagued me — a logical and straightforward roadmap for selecting and presenting fictional characters and their qualities.

Basically, I don’t know who might show up and who will decline when I send out a mental invitation for a cast of characters.

I know some writers are quite methodical about diagramming personality, background, motivation, skills, pitfalls and special attributes for each of their characters. Even minor walk-ons receive a thorough life history, complete with a family tree and genealogy chart. I think that’s wonderful!  Entire books have been devoted to to the study of how to enliven our pages with bigger-than-life characters.

Even my more-than-amazing hubby has tried to convince me (to no avail, I might add) to outline, diagram, storyboard and/or otherwise carefully analyze this story-making business of creating fictional characters. We both come from backgrounds that required a dot over every i and a line across each t, so certainly I see the value in his suggestion.

I try to do that. Truly I do.

I can’t tell you how many outlines I’ve made that end up not even resembling the finished product, however. I suppose my pre-writing studies fail because my characters reveal themselves to me in much the same regard as living people open up to one other – some blurt out every detail and nuance of their background and character right away, while some allow only glimpses now and then of who they are, what they want. Characters come to me one by one, sometimes even refusing to give me their names until I’m clearly in the middle of their story. They delight me. They give me agony. Mostly, they give me fits. Who are these people – these fictional characters who grace my life, my writing, my heart?

In some respect, they are composite personalities of people I’ve known or observed. A fleck of eye color here, a piece of long-legged confidence there. Often, however, these folks are made up from whole cloth. They’re people with whom I’d never otherwise invite into my home or into my head. Nevertheless, the gift of imagination and curiosity is what graces a writer when it comes time for a character to flow from mind … to paper … to reader. I’ll give you an example. Now, you don’t know what I look like. But, I’d wager you can form a picture if you read through my past posts. From that study, you’ll know I’m a woman. You’ll know I have a husband (the Comma King) and that I miss my cat, Lily, more than I can say. You’ll know my wrists hurt – a lot – and you’ll know it still doesn’t stop me from soldiering on. So, now think of me as a character in a book. Give me an age, hair color, facial features, a smile, a limp, a lisp, a constant eye tic, a jeweled tiara, a nun’s habit, an impossibly sunny outlook, a dark and brooding past … whatever. Now, you’re cooking with gas! You’ve allowed your creativity – rather than an inflexible list of qualities – to determine how I shall be written in your book.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you throw away your outlines if they keep you focused, or even if they simply give you comfort like a security blanket. No, not at all! We each, as writers, will approach our characters as is best for us. Still, whether we rush at them, or allow them to approach us first, it is first and foremost our imagination that gives life to our characters.

Study them first if you must, but I’ll wager that they’ll always surprise you in the end. As for me, I’ll most likely let these sometimes improbable, sometimes surprising, always worthy characters just show up as they will – with or without an outline.

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