Today I have the pleasure of having JC Andrijeski, author of the Allie’s War series, here to talk about character creation. JC’s writing flows along, her characters taking on a life of their own – and now we know why! She’s in the middle of a blog tour and kindly let me join in the fun! While I’ve only read the first book in her series so far, I can say I was hooked and can’t wait to read the rest of them!
So go grab your coffee and see this post through to the end (it’s a bit long but totally worth it). Leave a comment if you write your characters this way also, or if you don’t, what do you do instead. Now, here’s JC!
Contemplating how I go about creating characters for fiction, novels in particular, it struck me that it’s not so very different than how I get to know a person in real life. Of course, I have a bit more control about how they turn out with the people I create (although sometimes, not as much as you’d think…a writer will understand what I mean by that), but otherwise, it is quite similar.
Generally, for me at least, that means I start with appearance. Only not just their appearance, more a sense of their physicality overall. I see a lot of newbie writers who dive right into complex motivations and back story, and I used to do that, too, but the longer I am writing, the more I realize I learn a lot more about a character simply by getting into their actual body.
Part of my realization around this had to do with learning how readers bond with characters as they read. All of the background story can feel like a lot of blah-blah-blah to a reader until they have a reason to relate to and care about the character. It surprised me to learn, from more experienced writers and also from observing how I reacted to characters in books myself, that much, much more of this initial bonding with a character occurs through their conveyed physicality. Meaning, how they stand, their mannerisms, oddities of speech, how they wear their clothes, if they have tattoos, if they wear mis-matching socks, if their hair looks like they cut it themselves. If they are constantly touching themselves or other people, if they laugh a lot at nothing, or have a particularly piercing stare or are constantly shifting their feet or rubbing their nose or staring off into the distance at nothing.
It’s the easiest thing for writers to forget, I think, but human beings are physical creatures. We are also creatures that learn much more about others through actual contact, observation and interaction than we often admit to ourselves. I learned as a business consultant that we generally make something like eleven snap decisions about a person we meet within the first six or seven seconds. Why would a reader be any different with a character? In a sense, it’s our job as writers to trick our readers into not seeing much difference between meeting our characters and meeting someone in real life that we find intriguing.
I personally think this is part of why people obsess on actors and actresses who play out the parts written by writers, instead of, say, the writers…or the directors. I know writers and directors get fans, of course, but I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a superstar until I went to Comicon one year and witnessed the behavior of otherwise normal people around movie stars. Before that time, I’d only really been to writer’s conferences, so was used to the much more low-key versions of fandom. Trust me, there’s not a writer on the world that would elicit the screams and tears I saw when Elijah Wood came on stage to promote his next film. It was actually a bit frightening, but extremely interesting to me.
I truly believe that people associate the physicality of these actors and actresses with the characters they play…not the words. They also tend to feel more like they “know” the actor or actress, as they’ve got a sense of who they are as people…or they think they do, anyway, since this knowing of one’s physical presence is how we relate to people we know in real life. I read an article on celebrity worship that actually supported this theory by stating that people are mentally tricked by celebrity culture in a sense, because they are under the (mistaken, of course) illusion that they know these people. The article got fairly anthropological about the reasons why, with a lot of talk about perceived breeding pools versus actual…but the bottom line was, people think they know them because their appearance and mannerisms are so familiar.
So yeah, the mistake I think a lot of new writers make is, they immediately go super mental, without really getting into their character’s skin and feeling them as a physical, three-dimensional person. Meaning, they come up with a bunch of facts and start telling us about the person. Their parents, their kids, their prejudices (as if most people are even fully aware of their own prejudices), their job, their childhood traumas, where they’re from, if they’re married. As a reader, it can sometimes feel like being marched through a first date…or maybe a job interview. I believe the reason is, I can’t quite believe in the character until they’re somehow tangible to me.
For want of a better term, a sense of presence needs to be conveyed first, before we get into all of the details of their life. In writing, I believe the best way to impart that feeling of presence is through a sense of how they move through and occupy physical space.
That’s not to say that those back stories aren’t important, too. But for me to care all about that, I need that basic sense of human connection and empathy, and funnily enough, that doesn’t really come through a lot of facts about a person’s life…even if those facts tell us how compassionate, loving, upstanding, honest and likable that person is. It’s gotten to the point for me now, as a writer, where I can’t even really get a good idea of what those back stories are until I’ve spent time with that character as a more visceral presence.
To me, that’s where the fun of writing really kicks in, anyway. If I do this presencing right, then I’ve found my characters can really grow into something a lot more interesting than I probably could have come up with on my own, purely from back-story and a lot of facts about who they are supposed to be. My understanding of who they are and what they might do tends to evolve instead of simply following predefined rules and a predefined role, which makes for much more nuanced and interesting writing and (I hope) reading. It certainly makes writing a fascinating journey at times. Characters that develop a life of their own, and start doing things and making decisions that surprise even me are what keep me coming back to my desk every day, if nothing else just to see what they might do next.
WOW! That’s some great insight into how characters are created! I agree that characters do take on a life of their own, and even in my own writing I can still get surprised by what they do.
Now here’s a little bit more about JC:
JC Andrijeski is a bestselling author who has published novels, novellas, serials, graphic novels and short stories, as well as nonfiction essays and articles. Her short fiction runs from humorous to apocalyptic, and her nonfiction articles cover subjects from graffiti art, meditation, psychology, journalism, politics and history. Her short works have been published in numerous anthologies, online literary, art and fiction magazines as well as print venues such as NY Press newspaper and holistic health magazines. JC currently lives and writes full time in India, at the foot of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, a location she drew on a fair bit in writing the Allie’s War books. Please visit JC Andrijeski’s website at: jcandrijeski.com or her blog at jcandrijeski.blogspot.com
I want to thank JC for writing this great post for me. If you haven’t checked out her books yet, you really should. You can read my review of Rook and then get your hands on a copy. And if you’d like to stalk JC, here are her links:
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/J.C.Andrijeski
Goodreads author page:http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4470130.J_C_Andrijeski
Twitter handle: @jcandrijeski