As mentioned on a previous blog post, I missed a week of this challenge. Today I originally intended to answer two questions to make up for it, but my answer to Question 9 ended up being so long, I’ve decided to answer two questions next week instead (sorry!).
Part of the 30 Week Writing Challenge. Click here to view all questions.
9. How do you get ideas for your characters? Describe the process of creating them.
The answer to this question is so complex and so hard to put into words… Bear with me, I will try my best!
The truth is that I have no fixed process for character creation, and ideas can come from absolutely anywhere. Some characters will just show up fully-formed, demanding I tell their story. Others, I will have to go hunting for them for days, weeks, months, even years until at last I am able to trap them, break them, hone them into some semblance of a believable human being. Once a character stops behaving and you start having to work around them to move your plot along, you know you’ve done a decent job of development.
For the sake of being succinct, I’m going to focus on the creation and development of two characters in particular, else we’re going to be here all day!
~ WARNING: Mild spoilers for The Mayor below. I’ll do my best to avoid them, but I can’t promise anything. You can click the character image to be taken through to their profile page ~
A prime example of the first kind of character I mentioned above is William Kale. I’ve touched on this a couple of times before, but he basically walked into my head one day — entirely himself — whilst I was listening to ‘The Mayor’ by Rasputina. The lyrics speak of “a blonde-haired”, morally destitute, insane individual who ruins the town he is then inexplicably made mayor of (“Oh no, way to go, he’s the mayor”). Lots of lyrics in ‘The Mayor’ apply to my story as a whole (mention of sinking ships, insane asylums etc.), however there is one repeated refrain throughout that really formed the core of Kale’s character: “If they take something precious from me, I’m going to take something precious from them.”
Whilst ‘The Mayor’ was perhaps the trigger, with hindsight I think Kale’s conception might also have been heavily influenced by a couple of other things, namely books I was reading around that time (2008). Roger Chillingworth for example is a character from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter who plants himself inside the home of his unfaithful wife’s lover under the guise of a doctor and slowly poisons him to death. Like Chillingworth, Kale plants himself inside the home of the Mayor of New Hardway and seeks to overthrow him. Then there is the duplicitous Captain Kennit from Robin Hobb’s The Liveship Traders who still manages to charm and manipulate those around him despite a total lack of empathy for others; a trait that Kale definitely shares. And then there is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights who goes away, makes a fortune and later returns to act out slow, painstaking and terrible revenge on those who have wronged him… Kale can certainly relate to that. All of these books and characters seem to have fed into Kale’s creation in some way. Out of all the characters in The Mayor, he has changed the least since I first started.
A good example of the second kind of character meanwhile is Jonathan Carson. Ah, John. John, John, John… We’ve had a long journey, you and I. Though I had his bare bones at story start (I drew heavily on my favourite historical pirates “Calico” Jack Rackham and Stede Bonnet for his storyline/relationships with others/appearance/background etc.) there was just something… off about him that I didn’t like, and neither did a couple of my early Beta readers. He was a caricature. A stereotype. Just your typical rakish handsome sailor fond of drinking, debauching, able to draw women towards him like bees to a honeypot. But he was so important to the plot! He was literally created to fill out the plot. To be Jaspher’s brother. To show Melora that she has other options besides the life her father has chosen for her. To give the story a second half. And yet I couldn’t make him believable, let alone likeable.
Eventually I was able to figure out the reason why: out of the four main characters, John and I have the least in common. Yes, believe it or not, I have more in common with a psychopath like Kale then I do with John. This was of course a problem, because it meant I didn’t understand John. And if I didn’t understand him, then how could I possibly expect my readers to?
After this epiphany, I set about taking as many Character Quizzes for John as I possibly could. You know the ones, the ones that ask things like “What’s been the best day of your life so far?” “Who was your first kiss?” “Have you ever taken drugs?” Gradually the character of John began to develop. He became more three-dimensional. Writing him became easier. I still wasn’t entirely happy though.
Then one miserable afternoon in December 2011, someone told me something really awful that had happened to them. Something that disturbed and upset me so much that I just couldn’t keep it to myself else I’d go mad. So I poured it into my writing, and applied what I had heard to John. Suddenly his character made sense to me. It became apparent why he goes out drinking all the time, why he leads such a hedonistic lifestyle, why his brother thinks he’s off the rails, and why his father continually turns a blind eye to his reckless behaviour.
John’s character has flowed easily for me ever since.