When you begin writing a story, just how well do you know your characters?
I was thinking about this while writing an earlier blog post on character names. I’m what the members of the Twitter #WritingCommunity call a “pantser”, meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t do much planning before I write. I like to have a basic premise, maybe a general character in mind (gender, age, maybe ethnicity) and then I dive in.
I don’t know if this is considered good or bad. In my opinion, a writer should write however best suits them. There is no right way or wrong way, there’s just YOUR way.
So back to characters. I really don’t put a lot of thought into who my characters are when I begin a short story draft. In the early days of my writing career I would go all out, map out the plot and story, mock up some character sketches, have my ending etched in concrete…but I found that killed the creativity for me. I did find it entertaining to do all that pre-draft work (probably due to having played my fair share of Dungeons & Dragons back in the day…creating character sheets and planning expeditions), but when it came time to actually write the story it wasn’t exciting.
What I mean is, for me, having it all planned out killed the fun of writing. Writing is like reading…I don’t necessarily know where the story is going and I look forward to a (hopefully) satisfying ending. So when I begin writing a story I don’t know who my characters really are. They’re like new people you meet at a party or event. You know their current appearance, their name, and you have a first impression. But you really don’t know them. Not yet.
As I write, more of the character comes out. For example, my protagonist is more than likely just a generic stereotype when I begin writing. Then they hit their first obstacle in the story. I don’t know beforehand how they are going to react. It just happens while I’m writing, and more often than not I’m surprised at what they do. I may assume they’re going to run from the beast they encounter, but instead they pick up a weapon and stand their ground. When that happens, new paths open up and my story goes off in an unexpected direction.
To me, that’s magical. Getting to know my characters as they develop is like getting to know a new friend or co-worker. There’s the first impression where I have a basic idea of who they are, but I don’t know their personality or background yet. Then as I begin drafting I get a little more insight. I get the chance to see how they react in situations, how they interact with other characters, and best of all, I get to know their thoughts and feelings. It’s actually quite intimate, in a way. By the time I get near the ending of the story, I know them very well. I have a good idea of what’s coming and what they need to do, what they’re going to do. I probably know them better than they know themselves.
When I’m in that writing zone and really getting to know these imaginary characters, I feel empowered. I like when I’m surprised by their responses and reactions. In a way, they help me to tell the story. Since I often go into my first drafts with blinders on, the development of the characters ties in closely with the development of the story. There have been many occasions where I had an idea of where a story was going to lead, but as I got to know the characters better, especially the protagonist, the path deviates left or right, up or down. While I’m the one driving the bus here, I follow the map laid out by my characters.
I’ll admit that I become attached to them. Each and every protagonist, even the unnamed ones, are still living in my head. I have no idea what they’re doing in there…maybe playing five-card draw or distilling moonshine. Or, more than likely, they’re waiting on me to call them back out of retirement, to give them a new adventure. What they don’t realize is that they are the ones taking me on the adventure. I simply create a setting and a situation, then I put them on the playing board and see where they take me.
There are a few characters I’d like to revisit. But now that I know them, will I still get the same thrill if I put them into another story? There won’t be that same sense of discovery in a new story because I know how they’re going to react. I guess that shouldn’t matter, though, because the story will be new, right? New situation, new opportunities, and they may not be the same character I wrote months or years ago. So yeah, I think I will check in on a few of them, see what they’re up to, and see if they’re ready for another adventure.
I’m curious if any other authors deal with their characters like this, or if they have a different take. Comments are open below if you’d like to share your thoughts.