What makes a fictional character alive? How is it that a string of words read by someone other than the writer recreates that author’s experience of a character? How does a writer use words to till the reader’s imagination to the point where characters sprout and spring to life? Is there one way? One secret? One sacred process that only a few divinely-touched authors possess? For the last twenty years I’ve been in search of that alchemical process that allows a character in my mind become words on a page and then morph itself again and be recreated in the mind of another, all through the simple process of reading. Truth tell, I’ve really been trying to figure out how the creation of a fictional world, complete with charcters and settings, is seeded into the imagination of another and encouraged to bloom. How do you ensure that the reader experiences the full impact of the world and its characters? That has been the subject of a lot of my reading, even more pondering, and eventually became the subject of my thesis.
What set me off on this quest? Early on I learned that it wasn’t enough to have an idea or a sense of a person in mind and hope for the best. I learned it the hard way. When I first began writing, I took several creative writing college classes and three of us formed a critique group. My efforts had been focused on writing short stories, developing stories and writing proposals. My critique members challenged me to finish a novel from beginning to end. So I set up a process to write a first draft, one of those white-heat drafts where you go from the first sentence to the last and never look back, and I wrote my first complete novel. That’s “complete” in the sense that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end–not that it was finished. I also did it in 21 days.
Twenty-one days, you say? Yep. This was back in my early bowling days. The local bowling alley had a nice cafe and a couple of my non-writer friends worked behind the counter. Every night I showed up and claimed the same bar stool. I pulled out my cheap, school-type notebook and pen. Ordered the non-stop coffee. Bent my head and wrote for the next four hours. From six in the evening until ten I wrote page after page. My main goal was to create a chapter an evening. My friends poured the coffee and left me alone. I did this every night. (It’s a great way to increase your powers of concentration.) Three weeks later I had finished.
If you haven’t finished the first draft of a novel, it’s true. There is a rush that accompanies the final sentence. But how, you ask, does this have anything to do with developing characters?
I promptly took my handwritten notes and transferred them to the computer, a process I have long since abandoned. It felt too much like repetitive work, so I taught myself to compose on the keyboard. I then handed the novel off to my critique members. Who, naturally, were appropriately impressed. We met a couple of weeks later, and after they had read all 60,000 words, and discussed the book. Apparently they loved the concept, enjoyed the story, appreciated the dialogue, but there was one teensy tiny problem. They didn’t have any visual construct of a main character. All they knew was that he smoked and had green eyes. That’s it.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that, although 80-85% of writers claim vision to be their primary sense, I am among those who hear and feel before I see. Actually, vision is one of the last senses that kicks in. That discovery had a major impact on how I approached learning the craft of writing.