Finding characters

The path to finding one’s characters is not as clear-cut as I once thought.  It turns out characters not only change utterly during the writing of a tale, but also (thank the heavens) once you’ve discovered them, they still grow and deepen.  Like real people, the knowing them reveals the inside of them.

Some characters came easy, praise the heavens.  Others are a long slog in fog.  Some are still recreating themselves, name, personality and all–including nationality, marital status, etc.

Sometimes a character resolves into him or herself by accident and I realize they’re found and they’re meant to be here, in the story.  That would be R, whose name never changed too much at all–and in fact only changed because I forgot what I’d first called him. (A sad truth, poor R.)

I found R by sitting down one day finally to etch out M, shadows, nuance and all.  M is one of my three longest-serving characters.  R at the time was a minor, minor figure in the story, his main role being to let my main characters know that M was in trouble.  To give him the knowledge, I’d made him a colleague of M’s.

But one fine weekend morn, after a long walk , I sat in an unknown diner with its floor to ceiling windows open to Broadway and the church opposite, with the grey wind blowing the street onto my pages, and I found myself with R.

How did M seem from the outside, I asked my notebook, and then the answer came.  I wrote several pages, and then condensed them to one.  It was a breakthrough on M, but the amazing thing to me was the style. It wasn’t my style, not my voice, not my tone–but it was authentic. It pulled at my gut.

I realized it was R’s voice.  “Who is M?” I’d asked, and R had answered.  In doing so, R not only shaped to me how M showed himself in the world, but in so doing, R showed me who he himself was. The words he used, the way he saw people. I found R, the real R, and his voice in one go.

I found I very much liked R.  His role grew.  I considered paring him down–it’s okay to have minor characters with body and soul, after all–but in his realized form, he actually transformed a weakness in my story into a strength. I could kick out a cardboard character who’d never gelled. R would take that role on too, but in his own way.  He wasn’t just a character finder off-page, he became a story-maker on-page.

Madness.  Writing is madness.  Makes me want to read old versions of my favorite books, so I can appreciate all the more how organic good characters are, and how full of knots the act of writing is!


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.
This entry was posted in character development, plot development, rewrites, secret ingredient, voice, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Finding characters

  1. ralfast says:

    Love it when stuff like this happens.

  2. “That would be R, whose name never changed too much at all–and in fact only changed because I forgot what I’d first called him. (A sad truth, poor R.)”


    Well, at least you didn’t do the William/Robert thing and accidently turn one of your characters into a bigamist. 😉

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