Monday, December 3, 2012

Character Is Destiny

By Reece Hirsch

How well do I know my protagonist before I start writing? 

I’ve tried doing elaborate character profiles before getting started, listing a character’s personality traits, education, job history, family, musical tastes, etc.  But while a laundry list of traits and likes and dislikes may stand in for character, it isn’t really character.  Anyone who’s gone on a date based on a profile could tell you that.

For me, character profiles inevitably end up being a little lifeless.  While a profile can be a useful way of setting down the broad strokes, my protagonist usually only starts to come to life for me until after I’ve experimented with a few scenes and tried out some dialogue.

Hopefully, by the third or fourth chapter of the first draft, the character has started to speak in a distinctive voice that I can recognize.   Once I reach that point, it usually means going back through the initial first draft chapters and rewriting that character’s dialogue and interactions.

Once I’ve found that voice in a character, then I can start finding ways to take some of the elements from the character profile and building a protagonist who starts to feel like a real person who makes sense – to the extent that anyone makes sense.   I think it’s important that a character not be too schematic.  Although biographers do their best to explain a life and turn it into a coherent story, no one is a mathematical product of their traits and experiences.  There are always contradictions, loose ends and weaknesses, and that’s where a character begins to get interesting.

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I tend to think of chapters as transactions.  In most effective chapters, someone wants something and someone else is standing in opposition to that desire.  In THE INSIDER, I found that in the scenes between lawyer Will Connelly and Yuri, a young wannabe Russian mobster.  In my next book, there’s a scene between another lawyer protagonist and a slimy online pornographer that served the same purpose for me.  It’s always interesting to observe two characters who can’t stand (or understand) each other.  Those are often the scenes where I really start to find a character, and what I discover is usually something that wasn’t in my character profile.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I really like this little gem. It's so on point and not something I've considered: "I tend to think of chapters as transactions. In most effective chapters, someone wants something and someone else is standing in opposition to that desire."

Meredith Cole said...

Although I work better when I "prepare" before I write, I'm with you on character bios... I don't really get to know my characters into they start moving around on the page.

Alisa said...

Interesting. I always assumed writers started off with fully formed protagonists itching to have their stories told. Of course it makes sense that sometimes it's the story/plot itself that demands telling and the protagonist comes along in the process.

Reece said...

Sue Ann -- Glad you liked that one. Like I said, I think it's the laywer in me.

Meredith -- My sentiments exactly. I'll keep preparing character profiles, I just find that once I start writing, I discover my best stuff.

Alisa -- I'm sure there are some writers who have the character in their head from the moment they put pen to paper. I just find that I need to wander around a bit before I get there.