As a child, I carried a little card in my purse that said, “Strangers are friends we haven’t met.” I have no idea where I got it, and I didn’t know until today it was a Will Rogers quote. It was special to me, and I believed those words—still do.
I’m one of those fortunate souls who can march into a party of strangers and come out with new friends. You would think, then, that it’s easy for me to shuffle through the many faces in my mind and pluck out characters for a new book. Alas, this is not the case. I BECOME my characters, something probably not unique to me as a writer. To become a character means slipping into her skin and reacting to stimuli, often unpleasant stimuli, thanks to me. This requires getting to know her first. Otherwise, it’s a bit like a one night stand, isn’t it?
When I consider a new character, I’m seeking an emotional attachment with someone my readers can relate to and bond with. I want my characters to have depth, and if they don’t, I know my readers won’t connect. It’s my job as a writer to climb in and make a path for readers to follow. Readers want to feel like they’re on a journey with the character, not watching from the nosebleed section of a stadium. But how do you do this? How do you pick a total stranger and climb into her skin?
For me, the process requires a bit of courting. I find a possible character and start jotting down a few details about her. Much of the early stuff is visual. Hair color, eye color, body type, choice of fashion. I move on to her career, her personality traits, her goals. (At this point, it’s a bit like circling a road-killed coyote. I’m just sort of poking it with a stick, making sure it’s not going to whirl around and bite my leg.) Once I feel safe, I head for deeper dissection. What makes her tick? What’s wrong with her life, and how do I fix it? The answers to these questions often lead to more questions that somehow develop into Points A and C. Once that happens, all that’s left is the part that gets us from the inciting event to resolution. Oh, about 90,000 words. Sounds simple, right?
It should be, but some of us are bonders. The very thing that makes us so good at developing realistic characters leads to heartache when separating ourselves from the ones who came before. Even if you’ve never written a word, I’ll bet you can understand this. Have you ever finished a great book and grieved that there were no more words? Ever feel sad that the story was over, that you wouldn’t be able to spend more time with those characters you learned to love? Yeah, that. Imagine how much worse it must be for the author, the one who became that person for six months or (in my case) a year.
I’m not good at writing flimsy characters. And although I’ve never had a one night stand, I’m pretty sure I’d suck at that, too. I attach, baby, like a remora on a shark. And while this makes me a nightmarish first date, it makes me one hell of a writer.