I read a book by a botanist who divided life into the species that move a lot and those that move only a little. He framed it as a choice. “Self,” I said, “there has to be a story in there somewhere.” So far I don’t have an entire story, but I do have some ideas about using this choice for character development.
Very often those characters who choose to move a lot are divided into useless gadabouts or visionaries. That gets boring after a while, but if I dig a little deeper into our evolutionary history can I make something more layered out of a choice to move a lot? Could the visionary have found a way to fulfill her potential without leaving everything that made her?
Similarly, the ones who stay are generally divided into hidebound traditionalists or saviors of the collective past. Ditto on the boring bit. Perhaps a choice to stay could mean both more and less about the fear of change, and at such a deep level that the character will never fully understand her motivations.
And this is why you should always read outside your genre. You never know where your next characters, plots, or high-concept projects will come from.
I buy fabric by the yard and use it by the inch; I buy books by the pound and read them by the page. That means my house is full of unread books. “Self,” I said, “either find a way to make time run backwards or start on those books you haven’t read.”
While it is true that I write science fiction it is also true that I’m not actually a scientist – or a magician – so the task of finding a way to make time run backwards seems beyond me at the moment. That’s why I brought The Persian Wars by Herodotus with me on vacation. It helped that our copy happened to be a good size to hold while stuck in those little bitty airplane seats. The good news is I discovered I can actually focus on non-beach reads while on vacation. The better news is I had an epiphany about my unread books, one that will help me as a novelist.
Many of my unread books are old classics – you know, the stuff you were supposed to read in college buy only read part of and begged your roommate to tell you how it ended. There’s also a lot of history and philosophy in my collection. As I was reading The Persian Wars I was struck by how much information Herodotus made up, or someone made up and told him. I had the advantage of two millennia of research when I was reading, but for centuries this was the only work available. It took a lot of time to combat the conclusions drawn and prejudices created by this text. Similarly, my characters may not have all the information they need to understand that the conclusions they draw and the prejudices they cherish may not reflect reality.
Now I am anxious to pick through my bookshelves, not only because of what I could learn but also because of how I could use the experience to make my characters more nuanced, more interesting. Who knows – perhaps I’ll even find a way to make time run backwards hidden in the pages of those unread books.
The latest edition of Foreign Affairsmagazine has an article by Daniel W. Drezner called “The Perils of Pessimism: Why Anxious Nations Are Dangerous Nations.” Reading it actually made me more pessimistic for the future, but it also gave me an idea for character development. What if I made the only difference between my main characters that the heroine is optimistic while the villain is pessimistic? Could I make that an interesting conflict, especially if the stakes were relatively low? I don’t tend to enjoy stories where the villain was clearly created only to torture everyone until the very end – which is usually a violent, gory end. If the difference between behaving well and behaving badly could be framed as a character trait which is within one’s power to change, how would that influence the plot twists I prefer? Would that mean I must remove the chance for redemption if my villain chose pessimism (fear) rather than optimism (courage), or could I show a gradual bend toward courage that I could explore in a subsequent book? Would I have to find another villain in that case? Lots of questions, no answers, but at least it got me out of the doldrums after reading a wonderfully written yet scary article.
Season changes are a big deal for me. The beginning of summer, for instance, used to be a joyous and barefoot time. Now that I have heel issues, I need to wear shoes everywhere (cue the tiny violins for my pity party). This oh-so-small conflict between what I want and what I can get gave me an idea for character development. I don’t write deeply flawed characters, so their opportunities to change, learn, and grow are going to be subtle. As I stuffed my pudgy toes into my shoes, lamenting the carefree days of youth when I had extra padding on my heels instead of my hips, it occurred to me that coping with little problems could be useful. I could have one of my characters get the blues in the summer instead of the winter – as I did when I returned to California after many years on the East coast (summer out here is monochromatic golden brown, while winter has green hills and some late-blossoming plants). I could have another character despise fall because of a strong allergy to pumpkin and cinnamon. Yet another character could dread the spring because it means finding out how many of the tulip bulbs were eaten by squirrels. These little issues could be backstory, red herrings, or plot points depending on how the story evolves. The important thing is I have another tool for character development.
My husband bought a new piece of equipment, and thought he might just have the right cable for it. I’m not sure whether he does or not, but the collection itself helped me understand something about worldbuilding. When my husband commented on how we were looking at our own history, I realized I could use the stuff stuck in the corners of my characters’ homes to explain who they are and how they came to be that way. I’ve used small items that a character treasures for worldbuilding and character development, but I’ve never thought about the detritus of life. This is the stuff that only gets dragged out when you move, or redecorate, or are absolutely convinced that you still have that perfect whatsit hiding in a box somewhere. Very likely the items themselves will not have a role to play in the plot, but will be invaluable for backstory. Who knows, I might even start clearing out the corners of the house to find good examples to use.
Once again, my love of nonfiction is going to help me become a better science fiction writer. Neil Price admits that the Viking culture he teaches now is not precisely the culture he taught years ago. As he has explored more digs and re-evaluated the artifacts, he has come to different conclusions about them and the people who used them. Not only is this exciting to me – there is still more to learn! – it is a valuable tool when I create the worlds my characters inhabit. One single artifact could upend everything I’ve thought about my characters, opening up new plot lines (or possibly cleaning up old ones). I don’t have to create a detailed economic system for my alien worlds, but I can hint at it with the tools and market places I describe. My readers are likely to be interested in other government or religious systems only as they explain who my characters are. You can learn a lot about describing alien societies by reading how archaeologists and anthropologists describe human societies so far removed from our culture that they may as well have come from another planet.
My husband and I were watching My Man Godfrey(1936, Carole Lombard, William Powell), and debated whether Lombard’s character Irene was merely swimming through life, grabbing what she thought looked interesting at the moment, or whether she had a plan and was working toward her goal. It occurred to me that with so many people contributing to Irene’s story arc – the writers, the director, the actress – it might be hard to figure that out. Some scenes with Irene seem to have her represent the failure of American society to recognize value outside of profit, some have her achieving some level of enlightenment, and some scenes are just for the giggles. There is plenty of room for the audience to contemplate the meaning of life through Irene’s actions.
Regardless of what I am trying to achieve in my writing, my characters are unwilling to take direction without inserting their own ideas. Yes, I am aware that since I’m the one with the fingers on the keyboard those ideas are all coming from me, but it doesn’t always seem that way. So, to keep myself from wandering into the weeds of self-analysis, here’s my new(ish) to-do list for character development:
layer your concept of the meaning of life into all of your characters
give your character a place to grow to, and an alternative that would be a disaster
leave space for the reader to ponder the meaning of life
Okay, so this isn’t a new spin on character development after all. It is, however, a good reminder list for writers – and with all those characters in our heads screaming for attention, having a list is useful.
The week between Christmas and New Year is always one of leftovers. Leftover food, leftover projects, leftover ambitions – it all collects in corners around the room, taunting me. Yes, January 1 is just a day, bracketed by a yesterday and a tomorrow, but I always feel I should justify what I drag with me into the beginning of a new set of to-do lists.
Although my current novel-in-progress isn’t set in January, it does occur to me that I am missing a wonderful tool for character development by not considering what my imaginary friends take with them from one year to the next. Do they save their calendars? Do they update their resolutions lists? Do they clean the house, shop for new socks and underwear, or finish the book on their bedside table before they celebrate? And what do your characters do?
It’s the Solstice, so it must be time for the reindeer to return. Specifically, my reindeer collection. I thought about how it really isn’t Christmas without the reindeer and that I rarely get them out before the Solstice despite my best intentions. Then I thought of an article I read about design and navigating the holidays. The author suggested that since good design always has some tension, one should plan for tension during family gatherings. I guess the idea is if you’re the one throwing the monkey wrench into the works you can persuade yourself you’re in control. That got me thinking about character development. Most of my characters do their best to create calm, serene environments. Tension is fine for art, but not a family. What would happen if I let my protagonist deliberately start the tension? Would that make readers think I was being inconsistent, or would they see this as Susan’s (justified, one hopes) reaction to one more burden placed on her? How would Susan apologize for the crisis she started once it was over? Would she even try? I’m not sure if or how I will attempt to have Susan act in opposition to her usual style, but it’s an interesting question to ponder. It might even keep me from changing the traditional holiday recipes just to see what happens.
While I was trying to distract myself from eating the Halloween candy before the trick-or-treaters could get it, I was reminded about transformation in character development. The roots of Halloween are all about moving from one plane of existence to another, but we’ve sort of forgotten that with all the candy and costumes and fun. The same can be true of backstory and any other information your character has at the beginning of the story. As your character’s journey unfolds, she can forget or choose to ignore what she knows. Perhaps this will enable her to change, learn, and grow in wonderful ways, perhaps it will be her downfall. That part is only sorta kinda maybe up to you, but you can experiment and see what your character wants. Your character may discover that everything she thought was true about herself was at least partly a lie, and some of the rumors she had been told to dismiss were actually what really happened. The key thing to remember is that information is a tool, and how your character uses it can make for a ripping good yarn.