Writing Tips: Character Development Starting Points

Aspiring writers are often told that they should “write what they know,” which I’ve always felt is a strange bit of advice for people trying to make their way in a profession founded upon feats of imagination.  And to my mind, nowhere is the “write-what-you-know” maxim more problematic than in character work.

I could write a hundred posts on character creation, character development, and the blending of character arc with story arc, and I would only begin to scratch the surface of all that could be said on the subject.  And I’m sure that as I continue this series of Writing Tips, I’ll have much more to say about character work.  But my concern today is more along the lines of the starting point for your major characters.

I’m often asked, by people who don’t themselves write, something along the lines of “Do you model your characters after people you know?  Family, friends, rivals?”  Usually the question is asked with a knowing grin and mischievous gleam in the eye.  And so more often than not, those asking the question are disappointed when I say, “No, I almost never do that.”  That’s the truth, and here’s why:

It might be lots of fun, at least in theory, to make an autobiographical protagonist fall in love with a woman modeled after my wife, or after that girl in high school who never noticed me despite my repeated attempts to draw her eye; or to make my main villain a dead ringer for the college professor who gave me a B- in composition when I KNOW I deserved an A; or to pay homage to my mother or father with a kindly older character.  I have found, however, that the characters I try to shape in the images of people I know are the characters who are least likely to develop on the page into fully realized human beings.  In other words, writing people I know tends to result in lousy characters.

On the other hand, those characters who I create wholly from my imagination, who I create on their own terms, without any hidden real world agenda, are the ones who come to life, who start doing things that surprise me and drive my narrative in unexpected directions.  They are uniformly my best characters and the ones I most enjoy writing.

I believe the reason for this is fairly simple:  The more freedom I give my characters to grow and develop in a natural way, the more organic those characters feel.  As soon as I try to make a character like someone I know, I limit their growth, I smother them.  I have compared creating characters to raising children, and think that the analogy works particularly well in this respect.  I can’t allow my children to run around unchecked doing whatever they want, but neither can I force them to become the people I want them to be, at least not without making them hate me.  I have to impose some discipline on them, but I have to give them the room to grow and become the people they are meant to be, on their own terms.  So it is with characters.  When I try to make them a certain way, they don’t become people in their own rights; they remain flat and boring and frustratingly difficult to work with in my books and stories.

So if you’re struggling with a character in your current work in progress, ask yourself if you are trying too hard to make them behave and develop in a certain way.  It’s possible that in trying to write what — or in this case who — you know, you’ve placed too many constraints on the people in your work.  Let them breathe, let them become who they want to be.  Give them room to develop without your preconceived notions, and you may find that they will turn into deeper, richer, more believable characters.

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3 Responses to Writing Tips: Character Development Starting Points

  1. Tim Rohr says:

    I had a father who had little truck with fiction, especially… humph… genre fiction… humph… which he quite unkindly referred to as “the pornography of literature.”

    Though I benefited (some) from his mantra, “Write, then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite…” his other mantra had a chilling effect on my writing. It was the one you mention: “Write what you know.”

    What a wonderful thing it was when a certain writing professor of mine addressed that familiar meme, asking, “Don’t you know your own imagination?”

    For comparison, imagine living in a room for many years with a locked door. At some point someone suggests you actually try the door… and when you do you discover that it was never locked at all.

    It was suddenly OK… like the shuttered windows of my imagination were thrown open. I was free to write. Not that I was good at it, back then. I wrote crap. Sometimes still do. But I was finally free to start working through the slush piles of my brain, eventually getting to the good stuff.

    …hmm, sorry. That may be a bit off topic, but your discussion of “what-you-know” vs. your imagination called it to mind, and I thought I’d share.

    • dbjackson says:

      Great comment, Tim. I can totally relate. I still live with the bias against genre fiction here in my little university town which takes its mainstream Southern Literature writers conference very seriously. You have to write what you love, what moves you. That’s a lot more important than the writing-what-you-know “rule.”

  2. Pingback: Write Your Imagination « Scream of Consciousness

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