[This article first appeared in the Heart to Heart Romance Writers of New Zealand June 2011 newsletter. My thanks to Bronwen Evans for forcing me to consolidate some of my thinking on character.]
Which comes first, plot or character? Like the chicken-egg question, it’s basically irrelevant. For successful poultry — and story — creation you need both. For me, though, plot comes more readily. “What happens” bubbles up in my brain before “who it happens to.” Since character doesn’t come first for me, I have a process to create the people to live (live through!) my story.
Warning: Pantsers/organic writers, back away slowly. This technique will give you contact dermatitis.
1. What sort of person will suffer the most from this particular storyline?
Okay, that sounds a little mean, but conflict is the heart of commercial genre fiction, so the characters are going to have to suffer to earn their happy ending. Story conflict is amplified by building personalities who will struggle most vigorously against (and ultimately for) the lesson they have to learn. Thoughtful character creation is especially important in romance because not only are the characters fighting their way through the plot, the hero and heroine will fight against and for each other.
For me, thinking about the theme helps me find my characters. In my Marked Souls urban fantasy romances with alpha male warriors possessed by repentant demons, the series theme is the shifting balance between good and evil, but each book in the series explores that question from a slightly different angle. For example, in the latest story, VOWED IN SHADOWS, the book theme is about weaknesses of the flesh. Naturally, the heroine is a stripper with a boa (not the feathered kind; the reptilian). Nim’s body is a sensual weapon she uses against an uncaring world…and it is also her weakness because she still carries the scars of childhood sexual abuse. So who would suffer most from such a conflicted heroine? A married man who hasn’t had sex in eighty years! Unlike the heroine, the widower hero holds femininity sacred. I’m being a bit wry by saying ‘holds’ since a maiming in an earlier story left Jonah with only one hand; his weakness of the flesh is quite literal.
I find that it helps to list the characteristics of the hero and heroine side by side to make sure the conflict between them and the plot is inherent in their personalities. I also make sure the seed of their need for each other is nestled in that conflict by answering the question “What does he/she learn from her/him because of the story?”
2. What made the character this way?
When I first started writing, I took a character-building class that handed out a twelve-page dossier to fill out. Eye color, okay, but favorite ice cream? Really? It paralyzed me because it seemed so arbitrary. (People with processes tend to dislike arbitrary.) If dreaming up a character to that level of minutia works for you, of course, carry on. I find that knowing the character’s likes and dislikes NOW is less important to me — and to the story — than the roots of their discontent. Working backstory into the actual pages is tricky, but knowing the character’s history can help flesh out the present without seeming so random. Not all of it (please, not all of it!) will show up in your story, but hints of those experiences will tint the character at every level.
The rule of backstory creation is: Go deeper. For example, Jonah is an ex-missionary. Of course he is, since Nim is a stripper! I wanted that source of conflict between them from the beginning. But I also wanted to give a reason for their eventual relationship. So I went deeper. Sure, he’s a missionary, but why? He was a religious man (another level of conflict with his demonic possession) and his wife was a minister’s daughter (the exact opposite of his heroine) but what more? Go deeper. Ah, he was a missionary, in part, for the adventure. But why? Going deeper, I find out that as a child he read a penny dreadful with bare-breasted native girls! That spirit of adventure along with a touch of male ogling gave him the history to bond with his heroine. Eventually 😉
3. How will the character get from the beginning to the happy ending?
Once the basic characteristics and backstory are nailed down, I track the character’s growth through the plot. As a plotter, it’s easy for me to let the battle scenes run amok without making sure the characters get something out of it besides bruises. But since our genre is about conflict AND change, I want to make sure the characters are embedded in the experiences on the page.
Time to make another list. I start with Point A: where the character begins the story, which is usually some version of 1. despairing, 2. lost, 3. oblivious, 4. willfully blind, or 5. happily puttering and about to be catapulted into the gleeful hell that is the plot. I end with Point Last, where the character finally “gets it,” whatever it is for the particular story. Since stories where the characters come to unmotivated insights and unsustainable epiphanies are unsatisfying and unbelievable, I chart the clear steps between Point A and Last.
For example, Nim goes from the kind of girl who metaphorically wields a gallon of gasoline and a match to being a powerful positive light against the darkness. A few of the steps between include: selfishly taking on a demon to improve her chances of winning the stripper all-stars; facing monsters in real life and in herself and learning she finally has the power to fight them; finding tentative friendship with other women in the demon-possessed league; admiring the hero for his dedication to fighting evil; believing his love for her means her scars don’t make her damaged goods; valuing the goodness in the world.
Here is where plot and character and romantic relationship intertwine on the page. The forward progression of the plot drives changes in the character, and the character’s changes drive the plot forward, and the hero and heroine push each other. I find that I usually have to move pieces around a few times — can’t have the hero injured in the battle here because that would force the heroine to acknowledge her feelings and she can’t do that yet, etc. Personally, I think that character rules plot because I find you can more easily massage the plot to echo the character’s growth; fudging the character’s growth to fit the plot can feel forced and unrealistic (always funny when you are talking about fiction).
I have other, smaller tools for refining characters — motto, behavioral quirk, personal imagery dictionary, etc. — but these three steps give me a sturdy launch for a story. You can also write most of a synopsis with these pieces. Pantsers, if you made it this far, you see there’s still a lot of room for on-the-fly characterization, like favorite ice cream. I also use these character notes during revisions to make sure I told the story I wanted to tell.
Although I consider myself a very analytical writer (shocking, I know) in the end, I do believe a character comes alive through some indescribable jolt of magic. But I think it’s a lot like Frankenstein’s monster; Frankenstein had to do a lot of work first — grave robbing, sewing, decanting mysterious bubbling liquids — before the lightning brought his creature to life. Happy mad scientisting!