I'm taking my cue from earlier Femmes blogs by my E(vil) T(win) S. J. Rozan and by Carolyn Haines, and if you haven't read them—go do it now! I'll wait until you're done. I'm looking for writerly language to describe how I create characters. Or maybe it's language about developing characterization. I'm not sure; so far...I haven't the words.
Someone recently asked me how I come up with a character, and without stopping to think about it, I said, “I'm always shopping for characters. I'll come across a phrase in a book or a scene on T.V. Or something in the real world, and it will suddenly strike me: I need that energy for this or the other character. And then I'm off to the keyboard. Once I find that energy, no power in the 'verse can stop me.”
This was received with a confused look and a polite “Huh?”
I realized, rather helplessly, I couldn't explain it better than that. And I didn't really understand it any better, myself. Words like “energy,” when not applied to the physical or chemical worlds, make me nervous. I like the concrete, the measurable, the identifiable. So when I get to “ineffable somethings,” I immediately try to break them down and make them...effable. Hence my problem.
It goes something like this: I see an interaction between two characters in, say, “Band of Brothers,” and it will immediately strike me—I need that for my characters in whatever story I'm working on. It's not that I specifically need American soldiers, or two guys, or the actor, Damien Lewis—it's a head nod, or a sense of trust, or a kind of competence that will work well in a character I'm writing. It's...a frisson, it's a feeling, it's...I don't know what it is. A certain chemistry that I need fuel my character.
Okay, so: Energy.
Some characters come full-blown: Anna Hoyt, I knew from the start, was an embattled blonde, self-contained and capable. Everything else followed that. But in my Emma Fielding books, I struggled with the character of Brian, Emma's husband, for ages. Until I was waiting in line at the coffee shop and saw a cute guy blowing off his barista job to show a girl how to do her chemistry homework. He was having fun, she was getting it, and the line at the coffee bar got longer and longer. Then: poof. I suddenly knew all about Brian. Ran with it, and never looked back.
Slowly, as I learn to identify just what it is I'm doing (and if you know, please tell me!), I'm also learning that it's okay to leave a character who isn't quite baked in place, until I find out what the story needs. Then, while I'm out in the world, I usually manage to stumble over the right ingredient, something that will serve both the character and the story--maybe I'll realize I need to ditch that character altogether. Take out the scaffolding, insert what one hopes is now a fully-formed character. Turn the key and reveal worlds. If only it were that easy.
I've now invoked physics, cooking, architecture, locksmithing, and chemistry, and I'm still no closer to being able to describe how we discover a character.
Writers, how do you describe how you get your characters to be what they need to be? Readers, has a character ever haunted you, so you go plumbing every other book looking for a similar experience?