Creating characters – the pantser way

I know I am not fully in control of a story, but I usually have some idea where I want to go with it. Then, I introduce characters and they take over, sometimes taking the story in a completely different direction than I had planned. I am now, and will forever be, a pantser (you can read about pantsers and plotters here). That’s not gonna change any time soon, so I have learned to just live with it. Besides, I get to be as surprised as everyone else by what comes out of my pen.

Most of the time, it works. Other times, I read back over something I’ve just written, and know right away it won’t work. That’s why the delete key was invented. I delete everything that doesn’t work, have a stern talk with my main character, who just went heaven knows where, and we try again. Remember, even your main character can go off on a nonsensical tangent that has nothing to do with your novel, or slows it down or … you know, turns it into a disaster.

When it happens, do not panic. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s not the end of your novel. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed. Characters sometimes enjoy hogging the scenes, and you can always go back later and delete the unimportant stuff, or if it’s clear this new direction your main character is taking will derail your novel completely, go back immediately and delete it.

This works even for pantsers. We can generally just feel when a story isn’t going in the right direction. It’s part instinct and part experience. When I know a scene won’t work, when I know it will change the story so drastically that I won’t be able to recover it, I delete it right away, take a short break, then return to the story.

But, you may ask, what about character development, and arc and all that literary stuff that always gets hammered into our heads? I don’t know about other writers, but when I try to force development, growth, arc and what not else, it doesn’t work. My characters come out forced, fake and one-dimensional. Just like real life, I get to know my characters one page at a time, they reveal themselves, their personalities, their pasts, their interests, hobbies, and secrets to me bit by bit, and by the end of the novel, it’s all there. It comes naturally to most of us. If you’re really inside the head of your character, you won’t need to fret about this stuff while you’re drafting, it will all come out by itself.

That said, there are a few things you need to know before you start writing, and that’s a fairly good idea of your character’s back story, and what they look like. Again, you may ask, if I have no control, and know very little about my main characters, how do I know anything about them before I start? The answer is that when I get a new story idea, I don’t start writing right away. When a character shows up to “tell” me his or her story, I usually give it a few days before I sit down to write it. My husband calls it daydreaming, I call it work. Basically, I do no writing for a few days, but whenever I get a chance, I sit back, pop on my headphones, turn up the music, and let the character in. He will tell me his story, not all of it, but enough to give me an idea. This is usually the time I get a clear image of what the character looks like, I get glimpses into his personality, his past, his working life, etc. and I take notes.

Here is a short list of the things you need to know about your main character/s before you start writing about them:

1) Looks (hair colour, body shape, eye colour, height, etc) – You don’t have to go into too much detail here if you don’t want to. Some authors like to describe a character’s looks down to the over-sized pore on their chin, others’ enjoy giving only a faint outline, leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.
2) Job – Does his/her job allow them a lot of freedom? Will it make them rich? Are they in a dead-end job that makes them miserable? Perhaps, they have a low-paying job, but it’s one that makes them insanely happy.
3) Education – Education makes a big difference. Educated people talk and think differently than uneducated people, and the higher they’re educated, the “higher” the language. Education also shapes things like diet, sleep patterns, lifestyle choices (the amount of children they have, for instance), what they read, etc. Again, you don’t need to give details, but in your novel, through speech and narration, you’ll want to show your character’s level of education. Remember that not all education is formal. A lot of very successful people are self-educated.
4) Childhood – What kind of childhood did your character have? Happy, sad, abusive? Again, you don’t need much detail, but our childhood follows us into adulthood, it shapes us into who we become. The same is true for your characters. It’s important to know at least a little bit about your characters’ childhood.
5) Relationships – How does your character deal with romantic relationships? Is he a serial monogamist or an incurable womaniser? Maybe he’s a little bit of both? What about friendships? Does she make friends easily, or does she keep everyone at a distance?

What about arc? That, I feel, should develop naturally. Just like we grow as people in real life (or sink to the pits of despair), so your characters’ arcs must evolve naturally as you write. When you try to tie your characters down to a certain arc, try to force their growth or fall (there is more than one character arc), you will end up with stilted, forced characters.

What about personality? The same applies. You can have a faint idea what your character is like, but we are all multidimensional beings, with several different personality traits, if you try to hold your character to the few you’ve written down for him, you’ll end up with boring, predictable characters.

Of course, there are many writers who do it differently, and end up with great characters. There are also many who do it the way I do it, and end up with boring, flat characters. You can map out every detail of your character, right down to the car she drives, and the hair products she prefers, but most pantsers don’t do it. We like to get to know our protagonists (and even our antagonists) like we get to know people in real life.

When inspiration runs dry

It happens to the best of us. One day, we sit down at our desks and have no idea what to write about. We can wait for inspiration to hit us, or we can go looking for it. I prefer going out to look for it. Lately, I’ve been overrun with ideas (I’m not trying to rub anything in here, but it’s like someone gave my muse a kick up the ass or something), but it wasn’t always the case. I would go from site to site, blog to blog, forum to forum, trolling for ideas. Sometimes, something would hit me, more often than not I’d just get lost in a maze of true crime sites.

Writing prompt sites are rarely inspirational – often, it borders on those essay topics your high school English teacher assigned. While they feel familiar, those prompts will rarely lead to anything more than a writing exercise, which isn’t necessarily bad, writing well takes practice, and you have to do it every day if you want to be good at it. Athletes run every day, we write. That’s the nature of our beast.

So what to do when you find yourself sitting at your desk, drumming your fingers, wracking your brain and thinking that maybe it’s time to give it all up? You go looking for ideas, that’s what you do.

Stephen King wrote Misery based on a dream he had. I have written short stories based on dreams I’ve had. I have woken up from dreams so vivid and fresh, but incomplete, that I wanted to know, what happens next? Keep a dream diary. When you wake in the morning, write your dream down. Remember to include how the dream made you feel. Emotion is an important part of fiction writing, and you want to hang on to the feelings you experienced in your dream. Don’t just write down “scared” or “happy” – go all out, and describe your emotion in detail. Often that little exercise is enough to kick start you creativity.

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The voices in my head

Stephen King writes in his book, On Writing: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.”

Yep, in case you wondered, big Stephen King fan.

Most of the time, a story just drops into my head, usually while I’m listening to music. It comes to me as little ‘snippets’ of mind movies, call them trailers if you want, and I don’t get the full picture until I sit down and start writing. I refer to the characters as “voices”, and it’s my job to tell their story. I have absolutely no control over it, I don’t control the characters, the plot, the scenery … nothing. I’m just the nut job at the keyboard, consuming too much caffeine, not getting enough sleep, and playing with my imaginary friends, in our imaginary world. (Don’t call the men in white coats just yet though, I’m not that far gone).

The current novel I’m working on, Beyond Repair, came to me completely unexpectedly. And it was a whopper of a voice. Sam. Poor, poor, damaged, tortured Sam. I told him to go sit in the corner and wait his turn, while I continued to struggle with a story I just wasn’t feeling, but whenever he got a chance to be heard, he took it. In bed, in the bath, while I worked, while I played, while I tried to sleep. If he saw a gap, he jumped in.

So, I gave up. I put the other piece of crap (and it was absolute shit) aside, and I listened to Sam, who didn’t care to show me everything, until I sat down and really paid attention to him. When I opened the door and let him in, man alive … I wanted to cry. He is tearing my heart apart.

It started out ass backwards. We started with his wedding night (which was just sickeningly romantic), and worked our way back, to the day he met his bride for the first time. As I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, he showed me much more than I could ever have anticipated. The story I thought would be something short and sweet, evolved into a novel. There is one image that stuck, and I’ll share it with you, but you’ll have to forgive me, it’s still rather raw, and unedited:

My heart hammered in my chest, and blood roared in my ears. Sweat poured down my body. I clawed deep scratches into my throat, convinced his hands were still there, desperately trying to pull air into my aching lungs. Elisa grabbed my wrists and pulled my hands away from my throat. Holding my arms down, her voice, calm and soothing, made its way through the fog. “Look at me.”
I had the odd sensation that I was looking at her through a hazy curtain, and realised I was crying. She let go of my wrists, and wiped the tears away, holding my head in her hands, she forced me to look at her. “It’s just a panic attack,” she said. “Breath with me.”
She took my hands in hers, and brought them close to her chest, keeping them there. I breathed with her, trying to calm my mind, trying to put the flashing memories way down deep where they belonged.
I breathed, and my heart slowed.
I saw myself, lying naked and bloody and broken and torn to pieces on the bathroom floor, too scared and hurt to move, clutching a teddy bear to my chest. Crouching in a bath, because it hurt too much to sit, bleeding into the water.
I inhaled and exhaled with Elisa.
I felt the deep, burning stings of the cigarette burns on my chest. Heard the swish of the strap, and felt it connect with a loud, wet smack. But mostly, I felt him behind me, smelled his stinking breath, felt the blister of the foul air on my skin, heard him grunting. Groaning, I hit myself against the forehead, trying to stop the avalanche.

Sadly, that is not Sam at his worst. He had a rough life, and sometimes it catches up with him. I have tried to put this story aside. I have tried to ignore him. I write horror, damn it, not this stuff! But, in a way, this is horror. Tear your guts out, make you want to hurt people, horror. This is real life, which is often so much scarier and more painful than we can ever imagine, and someone has to tell his story. Might as well be me.

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