10.01.2020

Find Out Where They Start

The process of discovering your major characters can be a hit-or-miss affair. Most authors start a manuscript with only the vaguest idea what the story will be about, much less who will populate it. More certainty is gained as the pages pile up. Realization dawns at a certain point: Okay, that is starting to look like Dad, or that side of Dad we didn’t like. With such a stumbling process, characters can look like eight shades of vanilla by the time the first draft is completed. Like Dad, but not doing justice to his vibrancy at all. 

When an author is first choosing major characters, “damaged” should be the first quality that comes to mind. The only good characters, the ones that have any hope of holding our interest all book long, are damaged. They might be alcoholic, like Sportcoat in James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, or lonely, like Hawkhill in Annie Proulx’s “On the Antler.” Such characters have an unpredictable edge because they violate society’s bounds. 

Once you have chosen someone who can keep the reader nervous, the next step is to develop a full background story about how they got that way. While some of this work may appear in the novel, most of it won’t. You’re trying to devise a frame of reference for the character. That way they can refer to something that happened 10 years ago as a given, mulled over many times, the way you yourself refer to signal past events in your own mind. Just an offhand sentence, or even a phrase, and the reader understands the terrible burden, or whatever, the character has been carrying all these years. Yet you cannot make that comment without knowing whence the reference came.

How do you choose the cardinal points that determine a background? You start with what went wrong in the character’s life. That’s how they got damaged. Whether you choose an abusive parent or childhood bullying, a love lost or a death, or a combination of such factors, you are probing for how a life can go off the rails. That’s because the only way to view life from an interesting angle is to have fallen off the path that guides us in our safe lives.

How long should the exercise go on? There really is no limit, but I would shoot for 20 pages at a minimum. That forces you to really dig. You got to get to 20, so that means you will dwell in that past long enough that you really get to know who’s carrying your torch.

Exercise: An important part of this exploration is gleaning possible supporting characters that will play an active role in the book. To return to Sportcoat as an example, his wife, Hettie, is a constant presence in his life even though she is dead. The story is ingeniously designed so that the only way he can lay her ghost to rest is to stop drinking. So background work isn’t just the past; it may cast looming shadows over the present.

“Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good.”   —Katherine Anne Porter

Copyright 2020 @ John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.