Apart from, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ (although in some cases, ‘Why do you get these ideas?’ might be the more appropriate inquiry), one of the more frequently questions writers get asked about their work involves the creation of character. Both readers and writers alike are always interested to know which came first, the story or the character. The answer, I think, is usually character. Or story. Or both. Or neither…
The truth is there is no stock answer, it’s different almost every time.
Sometimes you deliberately set out to build a character from the ground up to fill the requirements of the story you want to tell, and sometimes a character will grow organically from the story, like a flower growing through a gap between paving slabs. Sometimes it’s a weird combination of the two.
The build-a-character method is a basic checklist, usually more associated with formula genre fiction, which supplies this functional blank with all the skills, life-experiences, background, knowledge, beliefs and philosophies it will eventually require to serve the needs of the plot. It’s a good, if somewhat mechanical, method, which aids the plotting process itself and often reduces the need for extensive rewriting. Breathing real life into the blank is usually secondary to this pragmatic process, and how well this is done afterward is probably the difference between a merely competent writer and a really good one.
A good example of a character growing organically from the material comes from the second book of my Perfect Worlds series, Perfect Peace.
I had already been writing the novel for a while before deciding to add a prologue where a body was found on a beach. In my notebook, I had found a scribbled line – originally intended to be a minor detail mentioned in passing by another character – about the body being found by an older lady walking her dog, and so I went with that idea.
Just a couple of pages should do it, I told myself. No more.
What I ended up with, however, was a lot more than just a couple of pages. I got a fully-rounded character with her own unique story to tell, and this left me quite puzzled – why had this character grown so much in such a short space of time? Where had she come from, and what bearing did her personal circumstances have on the story I was writing?
At the time I had no answers to any of these questions, but I decided to leave the new prologue as it was until the editing process began, when I assumed much of it would be either cut entirely or condensed to the bare essentials. What happened instead was that as the book’s first draft progressed, this character continued to grow and infiltrate the novel, until her story and the novel’s were so closely entwined that they became exactly the same entity, and in the process succeeded in enriching the novel beyond all measure.
In the final analysis, the character built-to-purpose and the free-range character should both fulfil exactly the same role within the novel, which is making sure that the clockwork mechanism of the story runs smoothly and true. But it’s very difficult to say which is the sweeter achievement, the perfectly calculated creation – the square peg in the square hole – or the character that takes charge of its own destiny, the character that won’t be ignored or denied, and creates its own rightful place in your fictional world.
Which do you prefer?