Formless but not Inchoate: Building Character

Nothing bores me more in life than filling out long forms about myself–nothing but golf, of course.  So it should come as no surprise that I have approximately zero desire (give or take a head-in-wall-thumping) to do the same for my characters.

Now, I recognize that filling out forms for each character (as advised by multiple sources) will not necessarily kill me. I realize, the expression is specifically that “I almost died of boredom,” not “Ms Ruth, formerly of New York, died early this morning of boredom. She leaves behind seven ill-formed characters and a plot that has yet to draw to a satisfactory close.”  Thank goodness.

But nonetheless, though forms don’t kill or many more writers would be perishing mysterious, dull deaths–I refuse.  I just refuse.  What does not kill me does not necessarily build my characters.  I refuse.

Perhaps realizing that I had refused (and in fact had gone so far as to–brace yourselves–delete all of my interview files, empty and pristine of answers as the day I first created them), one of my firmer characters, B, took matters into his own hands.

Talking with some other key characters, he remarked on how he sees D.  And wow, D gained depth!  D, who wasn’t a “problem character” anyway, suddenly had more shadows and nuance and substance. Not because B “captured him completely,” so to speak, but because B saw him in his own way.  In a different light. Both characters fleshed out from B’s insight.

It’s like when you’re talking with someone and they mention a mutual acquaintance, and you’re curious what they think about them. Why? You know that third person too. Why would you care for another point of view?

I guess sometimes we see things that others don’t, and vice-versa, and it’s interesting to mull over a new angle–and it also tells you something about the person speaking, him or herself.  And how you want to treat them in the future.

B just added depth… When I thought he was being more concretely himself, he was also grounding all of us…

And yes, I just lumped myself in with my characters.

Yay! If any readers here are writers–what have you found helps, or is it just time and that mix of clear and still-being-forged characters which eventually imprint their selves on the work?

unknown man, upstate


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
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13 Responses to Formless but not Inchoate: Building Character

  1. Beth says:

    Lately, I’ve taken to writing short stories about some of my characters at various points of their lives, such as childhood, young adulthood, and after the novel finishes.
    But I like the idea of writing other discussing another…I’ll have to try it.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Interesting! I like that too! 🙂 Do you find it helps you capture them?

      I found another idea I liked– I had one of my characters write a one page fictional bio. 🙂 So I wrote it, obviously, in character–and then analyzed what “he” had written. And it taught me SO much about him! Who he chose to write about, the tone he took, the people he included and didn’t in it, what he valued and what he despised. Was fascinating and strangely much more compact than writing a bio of him, plain out, would have been.

      🙂 That all must sound pretty INSANE to someone who doesn’t write. And maybe to some who do write, too! 🙂

      • sputnitsa says:

        I’m not sure if I made sense.

        D, my character, pretended to be anyone else in the world, a fictional person from HIS own imagination, and then wrote his fake biography.

        So I wrote it as him pretending to be someone else.

        Does that make sense? 🙂

      • Beth says:

        It helps! I started writing stories about different characters last November, and have been really using it for my current WIP (a novel I’m working on with another person). Not only does it help me figure out the characters, but I can nail down experiences in their pasts. And it helps the other writer, too!

        That makes sense! I think I may have to give it a try, particularly for one of my WIP characters. Would this fictional biographer see him as a hero or a villain? Hmm…

        • sputnitsa says:

          Oh, how interesting! How are you finding writing with a partner? Do you focus on different aspects or things in the book or are you working on each thing together–are you outlining or pantsing? 🙂 So many questions!

          Hm, a fictional biographer–that’s not what I meant, but that sounds pretty interesting! 🙂 I like it!

          I actually had my character, D, be “assigned” to write a biography of himself, but he could pretend he was anyone on earth–real or fictional. He chose to write himself as a certain type of person, his exact name etc made up, but a very real life story that he wrote for himself. And that added so much nuance to my sense of him by psychoanalyzing his writing.

          The irony being…that it’s me analyzing my writing as him pretending to be someone else.
          Could it be any crazier? 🙂

          Anyway, I like the fictional biographer writing a bio on my characters, too. INTERESTING. Nice idea 🙂 Let me know if you do any of these–how it goes for you 🙂

  2. ralfast says:

    I need to write better notes about my characters, or at least keep them in a better way, because I sometime forget their names or where they fit in the story. I hate to have to go back and re-read the story again so I don’t trip over myself or even invent a new name for an existing character.

  3. Beth says:

    We haven’t started ‘officially’ writing yet, we’re still in the planning stages.

    We’re outlining the story, pulling together character descriptions/mini biographies, working out subplots (the pruning of the subplots will be VERY difficult, but we figure we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it).The story started as a communal story over at NaNo, and I realized it would be a really fun novel to read. My cowriter came up with the world and the most awesome villain, so it was pretty much a no-brainer that we write it together. And we’re scarily on similar wavelengths.

    I think, when it comes down to writing it, we’re going to split the sections up based on the characters involved, then work on transitions and editing for consistency. What we may end up doing is creating separate Google docs for each chapter, go in and write.

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