Monday, 26 January 2009


I want to start. It's my nature: plunge straight in, worry about the temperature or lack of bathing costume after. So what if some of the characters are a little vapid, indistinct? They'll flesh out as I go along.

They won't. Hence my self-imposed ban on beginning until I know everything about them. And that means everything: physical characteristics, temperament, hopes, fears, secrets, habits. How they vote, how they cry, how they make love. Their childhood, puberty, first kiss. Biggest regret. What would they kill / die for?

Most of this is unlikely to find its way into the prose, but the writer needs to know it. Think of an iceberg, its tip the story, all informed, held up by, the 90% or so hidden below the surface. I need to know how they'd react in any situation. They need life breathing into them to resonate, to be believed. (I actually talk to mine. Out loud.) Give them lines of dialogue to see if they sound authentic. Shout at them, see how they react.

Not that any of this means I retain utter control over them. (One awoke me at 4am today, insisting I change something about her now, lest I forget in the morning.) It's also important to remember people are unpredictable at times; characters must be too. And they should evolve as a result of the things that happen to them, just as we do. So keep them on a leash, yes, but make it a long one.

Name them with care. Try different ones out; they'll let you know when one suits. Don't just use any one now, thinking you'll change it later - they'll become that person and it'll be too late. And watch out for overly artificial monikers. I remember an article by Sven Birkerts for Angi magazine where he described rejecting a story after the opening sentence because the character's name was too contrived, too literary. Harsh, but it happens.

This done, reveal their character slowly, through behaviour and dialogue. Nurture them. Make them the most important people in your life.

Oh, and try not to fall in love with any of them; it'll only end in tears.


Tania Hershman said...

Don't fall in love with your characters? I fall in love with all of them! Maybe that's why I get so depressed since as a short story writer I only get so spend a short amount of time with them. In terms of getting to know them before you start, it's not something I have ever done with a short story, but I have an idea for a film script which I just can't seem to work out, and so instead I am getting to know my main character by "riffing" about her, kind of following her around and writing down what I see. It's fascinating, and frankly may end up being a piece of writing I can do something with, or not, it doesn't matter. I love getting to know her, it really deepens the process. Although if she woke me at 4am I'd be a bit pissed off!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Ha, Tania. 4am is standard since starting this novel. I ask tens of questions as I go to sleep, unconscious mind finds all the answers. Must train it to have a lie in, though!
Your script sounds interesting.
And thanks for the New Yorker podcast tip; loving those stories.

SueG said...

Halfway through my new 1st draft I discovered there was a 20-year period for which i knew nothing about my main character! Yikes. My writing group put her/me in the "hot seat" and boy, what a revelation. You're so right. You gotta' know them. But I agree with Tania too. You might not always like them, but just like your relatives, you gotta' love them, too.PS Thanks for the blog link. Yours is now on mine too.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good point, Sue. I once gave a character a lecture from her brother, having described her as an only child several chapters before!

stu said...

Know how they'll react in any situation? Surely the only situations they'll be in are the ones you choose to put them in.

TOM J VOWLER said...

That's true, Stu, but I still find it important to know aspects of them that'll never appear in the story. I suppose I feel this gives me the best chance to make them consistent and therefore believable.