I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately – specifically, the way the voices of the characters in my current project are developing.
As part of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve officially started my third novel. This novel is a standalone – not a part of a series or linked to any other project I’ve written – which means it’s a fresh start for me. New plot, new settings and most importantly, new characters.
As I started delving into this novel, I realised that my process of creating characters has changed dramatically since my first book.
When I wrote my YA fantasy novel (we are calling him Swordy McSwordface at present, just for shiggles), I was planning to make it the first in a series. With that series in mind, I wanted to get all my ducks in a row for continuity and thus set up this amazing, fully-thought-out universe.
When I say I wanted this, I think what I actually mean is that I felt I had to do it.
When I was growing up, I was so impressed with how J.K. Rowling had reams and reams of backstory on her characters (enough to create a whole website like Pottermore). It was amazing to see how, in interviews, someone would question the origins of some random goblin from Gringotts or one of Sirius Black’s relatives and she would just be able to rattle off their history and motivations and Hogwarts House and even their wand size (oh my).
As a reader, these interviews were exciting ways to learn more about the wizarding world I’d fallen in love with.
But as a writer, they had an unintended negative consequence.
When I heard that Rowling had all this extraordinary backstory on her characters, I figured this was the way a true writer creates their characters; that they have to know every single thing about them, because they invented them. That seemed to make sense to me.
Moreover, the impression I took away from this was that if I wanted to be a good writer with well-rounded characters, it was essential to have mapped their entire existence as a human being.
And consequently, if I didn’t do this, I would be a bad writer. Or an amateur writer. Or a lazy writer.
So, I thought I needed to know all the fine details. Hair colour and style, of course, but also my characters’ addictions and crutches, their weaknesses, their scars, physical or emotional. Who were they friends with in primary school? Why weren’t they friends anymore? Why do they wear that particular T-shirt? Why do they drink that brand of beer? What colour is their piss in the morning? (Okay, kidding on that one, but you get my point.)
With the exception of the pee example (usually clear, though radioactive yellow after a multivitamin), these are all things you’d probably want to learn about the characters in a book you’re reading. It gives you a better sense of who they are and why they behave the way they do; it also makes them more real.
So with this in mind, when I wrote my first novel, I first set about creating these extraordinarily long documents of character bios. I spent hour after boring hour agonising over the origins of nicknames, the hobbies, the favourite school subjects, until finally I had what I needed: a full dossier on all my main characters.
Now I’d like to tell you how many times I actually referred to that dossier.
It was zero.
Actually, that may not be 100% true, because I seemed to constantly forget basic stuff like eye colour and hair colour/style, so for purely physical stuff I did glance at the beginnings of the dossier at times, for continuity.
But after writing them, I never again referred to those dossiers for input on what to make my characters say or do. I didn’t consult them for guidance when I was stuck in a particular scene, or when a character had to make a particular decision. So much of those documents was never viewed again.
The reason for this is that my character dossier, for all its statistics and descriptions, actually didn’t tell me anything about my characters as people.
My character bios were like swirling double-helix strands of Deoxyribonucleic Acid: they contained everything that made my characters who they were, and yet, I could have analysed them for a decade and still I would not have known how my character felt, or thought, or sounded, because I had never heard them speak.
This was a profound realisation. When I created characters in bios and dossiers, they were really just blueprints – a network of pins upon which I would hang the nerves and synapses of a real human. But the bio itself did not bring the character to life: it created a lifeless, faceless mannequin that had no autonomy, no presence and no voice.
When I wrote Invisible Boys, I didn’t spend hours and days on constructing meticulous character bios. I did have a bunch of brief character notes in one word document that I drew from, but what happened with that story was that the characters revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them.
This probably sounds disingenuous. I’m not cray-cray (well, no more than usual): I do understand that ultimately it was my fingers spidering over the keyboard that brought these characters into existence.
But I do also feel that I didn’t grow these characters in a clinical way, like embyros grown in a petri dish. Rather, it feels like I talked to them. I asked them to tell me who they were, and so they did.
My characters told me, and showed me, how they felt. They spoke to me in their own voices, and I was the scribe, and I recorded that snapshot of their lives for them.
It felt like they already existed, and I was just doing the hard work of asking them the right questions and getting them to reveal more and more about themselves. In hindsight, this reminds me of Michelangelo’s famous quote about freeing his statues from the stone:
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo
I imagine a lot of writers can relate to that quote – probably not just with character creation, but when it comes to editing a draft, too.
And writing characters like this felt natural and organic. Sometimes they did what they were supposed to do, but other times my characters kind of went rogue and did stuff I didn’t fully expect. And that was pretty damn awesome to be a part of.
So now that I am starting my third novel, I have made a conscious choice to not make any complex character dossiers. Instead, I’ve done up one-page bios on each of the five main characters, just to give me a factual reference point for stuff like what they look like, how many family members they have, etc. – mostly for continuity. But I’ve forbidden myself to write more than a page on each character.
I don’t want to tell them who they are and what they want.
I want them to tell me, in their words and their voice, who they are, and what their life is like, and how that feels for them.
I don’t know if most writers work like this, or actually, if any work like this, but this is what feels right for me.
It does mean that, should someone one day quiz me in an interview about the full family tree of one of my characters, I may not be able to fully answer.
But at the same time, my gut response to that question is that I am not super interested in knowing everything about my characters. In fact, I would feel weirdly invasive telling a whole room of people what a particular character would do in a given situation. Unlike Rowling, I don’t think I’d have an answer prepared. I would probably have to write it as a scene and see what my character wanted to do.
I know I’m speaking about my characters like they are real entities with their own minds, as opposed to being figments of my imagination. But the reality is that I do see them as real, even while knowing they are fictional.
I see them as real because they are all, ultimately, fragments of my own self, expressed in different ways. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:
Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, that is what makes an authentic character for me: that they are a fragment of me each filtered in a slightly different way – like white light diffusing in a prism – and that they speak for themselves, rather than me speaking for them.
I don’t know if my process with character will change or evolve in the future. I’m certainly not dissing Rowling’s way, because frankly I’m still impressed and slightly envious of her control of character and world (not to mention for her success and wealth, but that’s a song for another day).
Ultimately, there’s no one way to do character, and every writer will have their preferred approach.
I’m just glad to have found mine.