Editor’s note: this post was first posted on the C2C in 2010.
The creative writing process is often a very weird one. If it were described in detail, without anyone knowing you were talking about the creative writing process, it would sound a lot like a conversation between a doctor and his patient… from an insane asylum.
So how exactly should I make the process of developing a character not sound like I’m totally deranged? Maybe to say that the imaginary people and their imaginary voices in my head are of my complete creation and always within my control.
No… that actually isn’t exactly true. Okay… I still sound crazy. Let’s see…
Maybe to say that when I am done writing these imaginary people into characters, and write them down on paper, they then completely disappear from my mind and they no longer bug me by talking to me in the middle of the night?
Oh no… not true either. Now before you pull out the straight jacket… hold on, hold on! Just a minute!
I do decide if I want to listen to what these imaginary people say. I can disagree with them, and yes I can decide their fate even if they don’t like it. Ultimately, I do have complete power over them and they have no real power over me.
Okay. Men in the suits, you can leave now. I’m gonna be fine. Although my readership is still kinda freaked out.
I’m Not Crazy. I Swear. I’m Just A Writer.
Ok, probably one of the reasons writers don’t talk much about the creative process is because (like above) it makes us sound crazy. But really, the character-making process is not only the most fun part of writing–it’s also a chaotic, seemingly supernatural phenomena that is, at the same time, within our very real control. It’s as if we are masters of this crazy. I guess maybe we’re less like crazy people and more like that Whoopi Goldberg character in Ghost, or that kid in The Sixth Sense:
We see imaaaaaaginary peeeeople.
But instead of being haunted by these imaginary people, we writers welcome them in the den of our mind, have coffee or tea with them. We love to listen to what they, our characters, say to us.
Not all guests are welcome. Some of these would-be characters are definitely not welcome. Far too creepy, or too boring, or way too nice. I guess we’re very elitist and discriminatory in the characters we choose to speak to. They have to be heroic, they have to be unique, they must have a very interesting life. Or else: yawn! Bring in the next ghostly spirit!
Our favorite imaginary friendships are ones with imaginary people who have conflicted ideas about life, people who are at a crossroads, who are still getting to know themselves–and are not sure where to turn. These tend to be the most fruitful relationships. Because as authors we can help those friends, guide them, teach them lessons, throw rocks in their way to challenge them (and us), and help them finally reach their happy resolution. (Some authors will be vicious and lead their imaginary people to their doom, which I think is a bit cruel.)
Why Being A Little Crazy Is A Good Thing
Ok, so I’m trying to be funny with all this talk of “crazy,” but, truly, the development of a character is a conversation. It’s akin to the relationship between a parent and a child. There are some instances when that child will not budge and will beg to go the way they want to go, and, in those instances, I will go with the child. But there are other times when the child is too naive to know what’s good for them. So, as their dutiful parent, I have to make the better decision, as much as the child protests.
Characters often start off as a smudge, then after some research into their lives you start to develop a sketch. That sketch gets colored in after a few rewrites and workshopping. It may take years before you can put out your 3D glasses on and see the character finally come to life.
I don’t think many non-writers know how much time is put into a character. Characters don’t just show up all fully formed and fleshed out. You have to raise a character, let it grow. It’s a combination of nature and nurture. You gotta have the right mix. It’s just like everything else in the creative writing process.
“Dude, but you implied that these characters aren’t always your creation and not always in your control. Cra-zy!”
What I meant was that, creatively, it’s more interesting if I have a character who has a little free will. A character who can do things I have not planned. (Ah, how shall I describe this fellow writers? You’re all probably like: “You dug your own hole, Ollin. Now get yourself out.” Uh. Thanks a lot.)
Characters are kind of like wind up toys. I make the toy and then I wind it up. The wind-up toy may go places I didn’t expect and crash into things. That doesn’t mean that I, the toy-maker, is crazy. It just means I made a toy that did what it was supposed to do. It was free to move and go places I didn’t expect–I made the toy capable of doing this so that I can observe and write everything I see it do, down. That’s what I meant when I said that characters are not completely in my control. In fact it’s best if they’re not. Otherwise, character-making would be pretty boring.
“Yeah, whatever. You said they bug you in the middle of the night. That’s it. I’m putting you in a padded room. Bring in the suited men!”
All good ideas often bug people in the middle of the night, or in the shower, or on a long drive. That’s the creative process and it’s random. Ideas, and, yes, imaginary people, come when you least expect them.
Who’s that scientist who discovered buoyancy? Didn’t he scream “Eureka!” while he was in the bathtub, and then ran through his town naked and wet?
See? He was crazy. Scientists are crazy. Don’t look at us writers. Writers are masters of crazy. We’re not crazy. We’re not.
I’m a writer. I’m not crazy. I’m not. I promise.
Oh, hello! Who’s this man dressed in a nice suit? He just took of his hat. What a gentleman.
Whoever you are, I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.
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