Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sovereign to my whims: writing character

From YA/child - ren's writer Neil Gaiman's blog where he answers questions from readers and other writers:

Hey Neil,

Wayward young writer here.I have a question concerning characters. Most of the writers I respect seem to create autonomous characters inside their own mind. This process sounds mad and delightful and impossible, at the moment. I feel that my characters are glaring flaws in my stories. I want them to feel real and sovereign to my whims, instead of contrivances.If you have any time to bestow some advice, I would greatly appreciate it. Just a revelatory aphorism or two. Also, thank you for so many wonderful stories. Your stuff is guiltless pleasure reading.

Sincerely, Dan Kelly

Gaiman: When I was a young writer I would come up with stories, and then put characters into them. And each of the characters would often feel like, in Thurber's words, "a mere device". I think the breakthrough for me came when I started writing comics -- because I believed in them. Because sometimes I would be using characters I hadn't created, but simply cared about. And over the next few years I learned that if you cared enough about your characters, what happened to them was interesting.

I'm not sure that's much of an aphorism, but it's important to care about them, about who they are and what they do. And (for me) for them to be people I would want to spend time with -- I don't really care whose side they are on, and they can be monstrous on the outside or, worse, on the inside, but you still have to want to spend time with them. If you met one of these characters socially would you talk to them, or make an excuse and flee?

As a sidenote, I think the years I spent as a journalist doing interviews for magazines really helped as well. I learned a lot about speech patterns, and ways of describing people, and letting their words describe them. But more importantly, I learned that if you are actually interested, and not faking it, people will tell you anything, and you will take pleasure in their company. So my suggestion for any young writer is, talk to people, especially people you would normally avoid talking to. Find out their stories. Figure out how you would put them into stories, if you would, or just describe them with a few words.

[Back to me again.] Great stuff from the indefatigable Neil Gaiman - especially that bit about really listening - and noting down vocab and syntax. I'd add to that: Make your characters move in a way only they would move. And give them work to do. And make them change in the story, and unpredictable. Not sure I feel you have to be able to spend meaningful time with characters you create, but I do believe you need to get your fingers right into whatever clay you use. Mary
[Illustration credit: one of the various artists on Gaiman's The Sandman comics link here, apologies for not being more specific.]


Rachael King said...

I saw the heading of this post and thought we were going to get YOUR ideas on writing character! ;-)

Rachel Fenton said...

Great post Mary.
I never, ever, get bored of learning more stuff (or hearing good sound, old stuff again)about writing...Characters, when invested in, can breath life into a story, and almost dictate their story to you. I love it when I reach a point in a story where a character practically says, 'oi, there's no way I'm doing/saying that...this is what I would do/say'...

Mary McCallum said...

hi rachael - yeah gaiman was hook - pretty cool stuff with the comics aside etc [i may be many things, but 'cool' no] - i condensed my thoughts at the end there... everyone a gem (-: will do a bigger post on character one day soon

mary X

Mary McCallum said...

i mean 'a hook' not hook as in captain...

Aspiring Writer said...

Hi Mary,
Thanks for this. I always enjoy reading Gaiman's journal. He's so prolific and engaging. I'd be delighted to get more of your ideas on character, plot, anything you like. Look forward to it. :)