Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Character Histories

In case anyone was wondering, according to a test that's been going around among my friends, I am officially an Uber Cool Nerd Queen. Sounds about right.

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I think I've got the preliminary research down -- the stuff I need to develop the characters and plot the book. The delving into German web sites may come later when I'm writing the actual book and need more specifics.

I'm going into the character development phase, and this is going to be more complicated and involved than usual for me. I generally focus on where the character is now, with just enough background to make the character make sense. When I come up with background, it's often reverse engineered to explain why the character is the way he is. For instance, I didn't even realize Owen had a backstory until I was almost done writing the first book. I just knew he was terribly shy, but I didn't know why. In a way, I think that was for the best because it didn't really matter in that book, and when you know too much about characters, there's a temptation to throw in all the stuff you know, even though it doesn't matter. I've woven in a bit of it and planted clues in the other books, and that's mostly what book 5 was supposed to be about, but it wasn't something I thought about before writing the first book.

But in this case, the situation the main characters are in at the beginning of the book is kind of complicated, and to depict them where they are I need to have a really strong sense of where they've been up to that point. That means really getting into their heads at various places in their past -- not just a biography, but really understanding what it was like for them and how certain events affected them. Then the real challenge once I've done all that work and thinking will be to leave most of it out of the book itself. I need to know it to depict the characters the way they are at the time of the story, but readers will only need to know a tiny amount. One of the clues of a less-experienced writer is the urge to put everything in the book, often in the first chapter. I've critiqued or judged a lot of manuscripts where the first chapter is essentially all the character development work. Sadly, a fair number of books get published with that stuff. It seems to be pretty commonplace in romance, where the first chapter often seems to involve the hero staring out at sea/his lands and thinking about everything that's happened in his life to bring him to that point and then the heroine riding in a carriage while thinking about everything in her life up to that point, you know, the "After her father lost his fortune she had to become a governess, and then she worked for a cruel employer so she was understandably nervous as she approached the imposing gates of Whatever Hall" scene. Except usually it's longer than that. There's also a temptation with difficult characters whose current behavior may not be stellar to try to excuse or explain it up front -- she's a bitch because her parents abused her and nobody loved her, he's a jerk who hates women because the woman he loved betrayed him. While there may be an explanation for the behavior, excusing it up front can make it seem like the characters themselves are making excuses for themselves. But not giving any explanation can leave the characters appearing unsympathetic, so readers don't care what happens to them and don't get into the book.

All this is why I may end up putting more time into the thinking phase of this book than I do into the writing phase of it. (In other words, Mom, you're not going to see pages for a while, so chill. And, yes, I am working, even if I don't have something tangible to show for it.)

1 comment:

Carradee said...

I know exactly what you mean. Admittedly, I'm not (yet) published, but I usually start off with the write-as-I-go, then reverse engineering. (Usually involving some edits along the way.) Isn't it fun when you get hit with an epiphany that makes everything make sense? :-)

I have a lot of respect for your ability to let normal characters keep your interest enough to write 'em. I like reading emotionally normal characters, but they're so hard for me to want to write.

...Maybe that says more about me than it does about the characters I come up with.