In Pursuit of the Whispering Character

This weekend is a long weekend for me. Remembrance day is this Sunday (yes, I will be observing the minute of silent reflection) and that means I have Monday off. There will be many words and I’m looking forward to that.

You can imagine that, with the number of projects I was building up over October, I’ve been thinking a lot about characters. For me, that’s one of the big subjects in the notes phase of my process: characters and major events. It often amazes me how one feeds the other, in both directions.

My characters are usually quite vivid in my mind by the time I start writing the actual draft. Even through the notes and outlining phases, they often feel almost real to me. You might have noticed this from the way I refer to them by name and ascribe actions to them, mostly whispering ideas to me and not letting me sleep. 🙂

While I’ve had some stories that start out as ideas or events, more than half the time I start with a suggestion of a character. Devan was like that, really. I started out with this idea of a Necromancer who wanted to be a good person but didn’t think that was possible.  And that still is Devan in a nutshell, but there’s more to him than that now.  Tavis and Fay were the start of the Mirrors of Bershan trilogy as well.  I knew I had two characters who could do magic, but they were each alone in a world where magic is always practiced in pairs.

So, how do I go from that nutshell to a fully developed character and story that I can work with? I ask a LOT of questions, and I never let myself be satisfied with a simple answer. I ask these of my character and my idea. What’s really fun is the way an answer often leads to more questions. I asked Fay why she didn’t have a partner already and she told me that she didn’t want one. (Note to those who think this makes me crazy, saying she answered, don’t be so literal. It’s the part of my creative brain that speaks with her voice and no, I’m not really hearing voices.) This, of course, led to the question of why and the further question about whether she might change her mind at some point. No, I’m not going to tell you what she answered. You’ll have to read Bound to find out. Yes, soon, I swear.

But you keep questioning and pushing. Events are the same, only that’s mostly a why-oriented thing for me. I know something happens during the story or that my character does something.  While it’s good to know these things, you should always ask why.  One of the notes I have on my Writer’s Lessons Learned Wall is “Every character needs a motive (and just because it’s convenient for the author doesn’t count).”  That goes for everything they do, in my opinion. You don’t need to state it right out in the book, but you should know it so that you can tell if it makes sense.  Also, that motive can lead to learning other things about that character or to other events.  Do you see what I mean about them feeding each other?

This may not be universal, but I find that this process and the “whispers” of inspiration from the character get easier and happen more often once I have a name for them, the right name.  It can’t just be any name.  I think one of the reasons Cayle of Masques was silent for so long is that it took me a while to tease out his name. Cayle was my third or fourth attempt, but I knew I had it right when I switched to that one. It was almost like a sigh of relief in my brain. It just fit.  I’m finding that, until I name my main character, I get either nothing or some disconnected events and a few minor characters.  I need that part of my main character to tie it all together.

I will suggest that, if you decide to try this method of building characters and stories out, make note of every single thing that comes up. No matter how small it is, or if it contradicts an earlier note.  Yes, I do that, and find the small thing may not be as insignificant as I first thought, that the contradictory stuff settles out (sometimes it even reveals a secret).  Let all of this, and the characters, be who and what they need to be.  Don’t judge them, or they may decide to shut down on you. Saul (Ashes and Angels) taught me that recently.

There are a few questions I ask of every character. What are they afraid of? What do they want? What one thing do they think they can’t live without?  How do they see themselves? What do they think their limits are? What do they dislike about themselves or think are their greatest flaw(s)?  The other questions tend to evolve out of these and the events that shape into the story. I also like to use some of these against them, or push them using those. That thing they think they can’t live without? Take it away, see how they react, even if you only explore it in your mind and it never becomes part of the story.  Always push them and chase down every secret they try to keep from you.  I guarantee, there will be some.  In both trilogies, Mirrors and Necromantic, there were secrets I didn’t learn until Book 2 or even Book 3.  Your characters, no matter how cooperative, will try to keep those secrets from you.  Find them anyway. They’re often the juiciest bits of the story, the plot twist that you might not have expected or something that connects seemingly disconnect events and lesser characters.

I still go through some of this process while I’m writing, by the way. When I’m outlining mostly, but sometimes later, if I get stuck, I’ll ask them what they’d do, what they think or want, and it usually works. I remember when I was very early in the process of outlining Possession (Mirrors, Book 2), I was stuck. I knew I had to get the characters to go somewhere, but had no idea how or why. I asked Tavis what would draw them back to where I needed them to be. There was silence, so I got ready for bed. The moment I turned off the light, he whispered the answer.  Half the plot came together as I was writing it down. Have I mentioned how much I love Tavis?

So, there’s a basic primer on how I build characters, and often their stories around them, for the myriad projects you’ll find in my Project Status page.  I know that I haven’t given a lot of concrete examples, and the main reason is that I don’t want to spoil my own stories for you.  Maybe one day, we can have that conversation over coffee, because I’ll talk story with anyone who caffeinates me.  And a few people too far away to do so. They can’t help that they live in the wrong city, so I won’t hold it against them. 😉

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About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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6 Responses to In Pursuit of the Whispering Character

  1. Em says:

    I’d just like to point out that it’s YOU who lives too far away. I live right here. 😛

    • Julie says:

      I’m going to counter with “I have better weather and I offered to take you with me.” And by the same token, I live right here too. You’re just at the wrong “here”. 😀

  2. jmmcdowell says:

    My characters love to talk about events and story lines but are sometimes too reticent about themselves. It takes a bit of doing to get them to open up. 😉

    A long weekend, hmm? Let’s see . . . 30,000 words?

    • Julie says:

      I’m respectfully saying 20k, partly because I have some other writing related tasks to take care of, and still have much of the afore mentioned life distractions going on. But that doesn’t mean I won’t push myself if it flows. 🙂

      And that’s what the questions are for, prodding them to open up. As I said before, Cayle took some serious prodding before he started sharing. I knew something fabulous was lurking behind the silence. Sometimes I think he just wanted to make me beg. He won. It was worth it. So. Very. Worth. It.

  3. quix689 says:

    This has been a really helpful post to me. I shall definitely be returning to this one when I need help outlining a story or understanding my characters. 🙂

    • Julie says:

      Glad to help. You might need to customize it for yourself, as each of us works a bit differently. I just needed to get all these thoughts out of my head, so I could make room for more stories and characters. Because, of course, I need more of those. 🙂

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