Thursday, December 6, 2012

Imaginary Friends

“How much do you know about a character’s back story before you write word one?  Or do you just wing it?”

Any question along the lines of “How much careful, painstaking, industrious _____ do you do or do you just _____?” is always going to go the same way with me.  “Just” is the operative word.
Some call it organic; some call it shambolic; I call it the Benny Hill method, as I’ve said before.  Brakes off at the top of the hill and go (bathtub optional).

And it’s so organic/shambolic, the bathtub goes whizzing down so fast, that very often I can’t answer questions about method at all.  I really don’t know. 
At the moment, however, it’s all quite fresh in my mind because I’m 1500 words into a new story, not part of my series.  So since a week past Monday I’ve invented three main characters and thirteen minor ones.

Here’s what I know about the big three, five pages in. 
I know their first and last names, no idea what middle names if any.  I know roughly how old they are but I’ll need a perpetual calendar of the 20th century at some point to work it out properly.   I know where one of them lives in precise detail, floor plan of her house, all that.  I know what city the other two live in and that one has a house and one a flat.  I’ll need to go out for a stroll with Google’s wee orange man later. 

I don’t know where any of them were born, but I know they crossed paths in their youth, so I’ll need to sort that out too.   I know the marital status of one, have got a bit of a clue (the name of an ex-girlfriend) about another, have got not the first clue about the third.   If his wife turns up while I’m writing, I’ll know then.   I do know what jobs they do; none of them is a cop, detective, sleuth or pathologist.

How did I find out?  By writing their evolving names over and over again on sheets of scrap paper and thinking about them.  I’m riffling through the heap of paper now and it really is just names.  This is the first time I’ve realised that.
One final thing: I know exactly what they look like (found out by repeatedly writing their names (does this sound as bonkers as it feels to me?)) and by about 30,000 words it’ll start to annoy me that I’ve never seen them.  Then I go looking for pictures of them.  Since this is a modern story I’ll trawl the internet, magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, anywhere I can think of, until I find them.  (When I’m writing Dandy Gilver, set in the 1920s, I have to use old photos. )

And I’ll know them when I see them.  I’ll recognise them.  Then I’ll photocopy or print out the pictures, staple them to pieces of card and prop them up on my desk while we all write the rest of the story together.  Writing isn’t lonely if you’re not actually alone. 


Meredith Cole said...

I totally agree! Writing about characters ends up just like spending time to get to know them... I tried finding photos of my characters for my last book, and it was a lot of fun!

Unknown said...

Funny, I work the same way. I must admit, I rely on People's Most Beautiful people issue to pair characters with faces--shallow, or are my characters just really hot?
Thank you for the great post.