First posted on 8th November 2016
Someone asked me recently, “Which comes first for you, character or plot?”
“Oh, character,” I said. “Character every time.”
And having said it, I realised that it might be generally true – at least, where novels are concerned – but of course, it isn’t as simple as that. A character doesn’t just stroll into my head, named, physically complete and fully costumed, with all their quirks, motivations, backstory, family and taste in beverages neatly arrayed.
I know one or two things about them, to start with. Generally I have a good idea what my major characters look like. In fact they’re often so clear in that respect that I have to remind myself to put some of that stuff on the page, because, unfortunately, readers can’t actually see the picture in my head.
I know what they do for a living. That in itself is part, of course, of who they are, and the world they live in – and then I’m into the world itself, and what the character is doing there, and what particular mess they’re in, and why, and we’re off into plot and world-building and all that other good stuff. Out of this, things begin to accrete to the character –history, family, social status, style, quirks… and then I want something to happen in the plot so I make decisions about a character’s backstory and motivations that will bring them to that point. Then, quite often, I realise that doesn’t work, so I have to change the plot, or change the character’s history, or both.
Sometimes both. Really quite often both, actually. And then I change one of them back again because it feels better and then I have to change something else, because now it doesn’t fit. And so forth.
I’m not exactly a tidy writer.
I do, sometimes, wish major characters turned up with everything about them clearly defined, because then they’d stride through the plot, making decisions that matched who they were at every turn instead of getting lost down dead ends. Not to mention that I wouldn’t end up changing something about them, forgetting I’d changed it, and having to slog back through every single reference to make sure they all match.
Like I say, not tidy.
So life would be easier. But if characters did turn up fully finished, I’d lose some of the joy of discovery. Creating a character is rather like making a new, close friend (or new, close enemy, in some cases), and finding out, bit by bit, who that person really is. It’s an intriguing process.
The characters who are the spark points for books do arrive with a defined and physical presence, a few essential characteristics, a voice. Other members of the cast can be elusive, refusing to fill out properly, remaining infuriatingly wispy despite intensive interrogations (this sometimes involves me weeding, or thinning the grapevine, while saying things like ‘Come on, talk to me, dammit. What do you want?” Aloud. To thin air. The neighbours seem to have got used to this, and don’t even usher their children hastily indoors any more. Mostly.)
Sometimes I just have to inform such a character that this is how they are, and this is what they do, unless they can come up with a good reason why not.
Of course if they do come up with a good reason why not – if what I write them doing feels actively wrong, instead of simply a work in progress, then annoying as it is, that’s generally a good thing. It means the character is developing, becoming three dimensional. It’s when they turn into that kind of awkward so-and-so who won’t do what they’re told that I know I have a live one – a character with some substance to them, someone who is more than just a jointed doll to be moved around at the convenience of the plot.
But the ones who spark the story – they’re always the best ones. They existed before the story, and they take on a life beyond the story. These are the ones who hang around in my head.
I’m half-convinced they actually do have real lives, somewhere in the multiverse, and I just got to be their biographer for a little while.
I rather hope so, anyway.
Gaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012). The Babylon Steel series continues, as does a steampunk series, Gears of Empire She also writes short stories and occasional poetry, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and procrastinates to professional standard.
Find out more at http://gaiesebold.com/