Writing fiction is sometimes about finding the right talent, casting the right fiction character for the role, or creating a cast of rich and multi-dimensional personalities. There are a number of character creation methods and each writer learns their most effective character development tools through research and experience. My own process continues to grow and develop as my writing grows up.
A few months ago I bought myself a clever e-book called “How to Create Believable Characters” by James Chartrand and Taylor Lindstrom. It’s packed with practical information on how to build your very own fiction character, or role-playing alter-ego, from scratch. I read it eagerly, already fascinated with character development and creation.
As I read, I drank in every piece of advice it offered. I gained a better understanding of why I write the way I write and I improved my character creation skills. I learned how to choose and create talent; casting the “right” protagonist for each fiction story.
There are two “schools” when writing fiction. One is a “plot-driven” story where you develop an intense plot, a situation into which you place characters. I am in the other “school”, a writer who discovers a protagonist first and then writes a plot that gives that star her life and purpose. This is a ‘character-driven’ story. Can you think of any “character-driven stories” you’ve read recently?
Who is she?
When I first decide to write a new story, I visualize my heroine. Most of the time it’s a ‘she’, simply because I’m used to thinking like a girl. I do know female writers who prefer to write male characters (and do a fantastic job of it too) but for some reason I prefer writing women.
My heroine may be young or old, clever, stupid, pretty, dull… I spend some time trying to get to know her. I don’t decide ‘how she is’ instead, I get a feel for ‘who she is’.
There are some elements I decide up front. Is she stubborn, or reckless, or depressed? I follow my instincts and she becomes whatever most sparks my interest at that time.
Other aspects come naturally as I continue to think about her. It might fit her to be afraid of dogs; maybe she is a school teacher. Does she have any particular talent casting her into the spotlight? Is she likely to go for the bad boy type, or does she prefer the office underdog. (Oh, perhaps she would usually go for the bad boy type but falls for the office underdog!)
After developing my protagonist’s traits and personality, I give my fiction character a life. Some of her past was determined earlier in the character creation process. Now it is time to explore her history and to decide what has happened to shape her into the person she is. Plot elements begin to emerge as her life takes form.
Here’s where it gets tricky. After the fun of writing, planning, and mapping out my heroine’s intriguing story, I notice aspects of her that no longer “fit”. As I focus on plot development I sometimes find that, this protagonist isn’t right for this plot.
Why not add that lacking ‘something’ to my original character? That would be the obvious and easy way to fix my dilemma, wouldn’t it? Couldn’t we force her to be what we want, gift her with that particular skill or talent? Casting her into a role that doesn’t suit her, however, is not a simple solution.
My characters become “real” the minute I start developing them, which means they have their own faults, traits, and personality. They are imperfect in a carefully balanced way – each and every one is unique.
Giving my heroine a new flaw or quality, just because the plot calls for it and not because it feels a part of her, causes her to lose that sense of being “real”. It makes her thin, stiff, two-dimensional; the organic creation process has been broken.
(There is of course another side to this. The needed flaw or quality could be a part of her in-story development or personal development goals… But that is for another post.)
It’s Talent Casting Time!
Now, I have this great story, all lined up for exploring and turning into a masterpiece, but my protagonist just isn’t right for the part. Do I scratch it and start over? No way!
I do a talent casting call.
I have tons of talent on hold that got dumped from other stories because they didn’t fit. Are any of them perfect for this role? If none of those characters are suitable, I think about which traits this protagonist needs and make that aspect a starting point for a new rising star.
By now I’ve changed the story several times and every time I do another call. I change the story a little for every character. After auditioning many people for the job they have all influenced the final story and add to it’s richness and depth.
Once I’ve my found leading lady, I can begin talent casting the supporting roles.
While this method can be time consuming in the early planning stages of fiction writing, the outcome is a full cast of strong characters I know and understand like old friends. They are the “right” characters for their specific role and are a good fit for the story. The writing process becomes easier because I’m no longer struggling with uncooperative, pigeon-holed characters. Now, when I’m writing fiction, I don´t “decide” my character likes or does things, I “know” she does.
The Final Curtain Call
In the end, my story becomes both plot-driven and character-driven. It is packed with a powerful selection of multi-dimensional, realistic personalities. The cast of characters live their own lives and I record it rather than control it.
Have you tried talent casting your characters? What other methods have you used to develop the star of your story?