Discovering characters

By William Campbell

I searched the internet for the appropriate image, and though I don’t love the above photo, I thought it captured the sense of discovery that I experience with character development. 

When I committed a month ago to sharing my writing and process for said writing, the first place I wanted to go was an exploration of characters. As someone who is perpetually “working on a novel,” it’s easy for writing to become a chore. The many failed attempts to pick up the story had become a broken record. That changed when something rather simple yet powerful happened.

I discovered my hero.

So much advice to unpublished writers is to write what you know. That advice guided me to developing themes around imagination and rural childhood. But starting there led me to creating skeletons for protagonists.

It was in following one of these skeletons that a fully fleshed out person just showed up on the edge of the story one day. It didn’t take me long to realize that she might be the real hero of the story. This is when I realized that characters might not come from an act of artistic creation but of emergent discovery. When I came to this realization my writing evolved into something more authentic, complicated, interesting, and frankly fun.

For me, character development has become less like writing and more like connection. Each time I sit down to write these people it is like a coffee date with a new friend. I hear their story, learn about what makes them tick, and discover their passions in life. My characters over time have slowly become a form of family to me. As the plot changes with each new draft and threatens to alter or daresay remove a whole character, I sometimes think: I don’t care. I will let the plot suffer because I love this person too much to cut them from the story.

So I am committing a writing faux pas. I’m breaking the rules. I’m sharing with all of you my messy, broken, and downright bad work – or what Anne Lamott calls the “sh*tty first draft.” Why? Because in this I feel like the 5th grader again who ran up to his dad and said, “I wrote a story! Wanna read it?!” In this I choose not to write for performance, but instead write for community. I’m a big believer in learning out loud/working out loud. I want you to meet the wonderfully weird characters I have also met. I want you to meet my friends.

The writing I want to share with you is that moment I discovered my hero. In these vignettes, her name is Alice. I qualify it that way because Alice may or may not be her name. Why is that? Because I feel like a bad writer by calling my female protagonist “Alice”. So for now, this is how we shall name her.

These sections comes from a book many many drafts ago. So many drafts ago that when I went to the version where I thought Alice had first shown up, I realized I had overlooked yet an older version collecting dust in the archived projects on Scrivener. Between this post and those in the future, I will take you on the journey of how she has developed. Alice started as a kid sister, someone who annoyed and pestered my protagonist on the side, to the hero and agent of her own story. When I set out to write the story of a farm where the imaginary can come to life, I initially created a protagonist named Nate. He was a thoughtful yet active kid who’s major character flaw was his fear and timidness. As I developed scenes for him, though, I noticed his kid sister, Alice, creeping in on the sides. The moment I wrote her I adored her. Her quirkiness, humor, and outright brashness was something I longed to explore. I found myself making up excuses to put her in the scenes, and as she showed up more and more, I realized her complexity and her importance. Almost in the way she kept nagging her older brother with “Look at me. Pay attention to me”, she did the same to me. In this way, Alice moved from the margin and became the center. In a lot of ways, my struggle to write this book has been my struggle to understand Alice. Is she quirky? Is she weird? Is she thoughtful? Is she a geek? Is she imaginary? Is she powerful? Is she all of that and something I still have yet to know?

Click here to read the vignettes. Enjoy!

Photo by Joshua Siniscal found through Creative Commons

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