How to write a book,  Projects,  Writing

It's kind of crowded in here…

There are currently about twenty one characters in my head and counting.

Each story I come up with or am asked to write, begets more of them.

What I am going to discuss in this post is how to create them. It’s not a hard and fast process but it isn’t completely intangible either. As far as I can make out there seem to be steps involved.

 

  1. We start with an important question: What is your story about? You can’t have a story without characters in it. Starting with the answer to this question will also allow you to identify the protagonists and antagonists (if any) in the story. Here are some examples from some random ideas, I have floating around in the ether of my brain. They are copyrighted by the way.

    Shirt-tail ending: It’s about a gypsy flapper singer working in a Louisiana speakeasy in the 20’s that a travelling Irish descent sax player runs into. Already we have two main characters: Kara and Zib.

    Fumbling: A story for the Memory Eater anthology about a magician who has used the Memory Eater – a device that allows you to delete certain memories. Clearly, Mr Magician person here who currently has no name as yet is the main character.

  2. Identify any immediate minor characters based on the little you do know of the main characters so far.

    Shirt-tail ending: If we have a flapper working in a speakeasy and the action of the story will take place there, then surely we will see some of the clientele, a few more flappers, the bartender, the bouncer, the rest of the band Zib will play with and possibly some other characters to do with Kara and Zib’s respective personal lives. Already, our character list for just one story has escalated to between 15 to 25 characters. List yours out. You don’t have to give them names just yet.

    Fumbling: What we do know about Mr Magician so far is that he performs a solo act but as part of a larger show so he has co-performers. We also know that he has had memories deleted so quite possibly there are characters involved with the device and the place he went to get the service done. And then there is the audience. This story hasn’t been developed a great deal yet but there’s also the question of why he had memories deleted and what particular ones they were which may lead us to more minor characters.

  3. Answer this question: What do your characters do? And why?

    Shirt-tail ending: Why is Kara singing and dancing in a speakeasy – a vocation that at the time might very easily get her arrested, given that it is the Prohibition era? Equally, why does Zib want to play sax in such locations knowing that the cash he gets paid with is illegally sourced and quite possibly mafia related?Answering these questions leads us to Zib’s background in NYC’s tenements after immigrating from Ireland and also tells us that he has a bit of a roguish, devil may care attitude about him. He wants to wander, he likes the lifestyle but he’s also wary of getting into too much trouble.We also then learn about Kara – another immigrant, growing up in Europe, talented, intelligent but with skills that the modern world in the US seems to have no demand for. Not having the sight, she settles for dancing and singing, a vocation that is dangerous given her place of employment but that allows her to make better use of her exotic looks. It’s better than prostitution – Kara is practical with some degree of self protection despite her adventurous nature. If this is the best she can do for now, then that’s what she will do.

    Fumbling: Why does the magician do what he does? He performs because he is good at it and he loves it. It’s a great lifestyle and he has nimble fingers. They shake for the first few moments of his act due to stage fright and then they fly around fast so you can’t keep up with them. He mostly works with small scale illusions, making small objects disappear, reappear and change.  He likes doing the best job he can and putting his entire soul into his work. It’s a lonely profession though but it is what he is good at and so he seeks continual improvement in tricks, in patter, in misdirection and so on.

  4. Now answer this question: What do your characters want? And why?

    Shirt-tail ending: Usually, all Zib wants is a place to sleep, a place to play and enough cash to survive till he gets bored of the city and moves on. But the speakeasy is a fun place and Kara intrigues him at first, mostly because he’s never met a woman with the same devil may care attitude whose main goal isn’t to find a rich sugar daddy to marry so she can leave her profession. As the story progresses he wants to know more about her but is again wary – what are all the possible pitfalls that could happen if they get too close for comfort? He’s not used to opening up to anyone, let alone losing his heart to someone. Getting too close makes him want to turn tail and run – here’s someone who could, quite possibly, understand him. That’s scary for someone whose trademark is an air of mystery.Kara, well, all she wants is to keep out of trouble. Way out of trouble. She doesn’t mind the life though there are those minor annoyances like over-eager customers who think she’s available for silk stockings and the ever present prospect of raid, rape and racism. And, she’s queen, she’s de facto mother, young though she is, to the entire speakeasy staff. She’s the unspoken number two next to the owner because she knows the clientele best. And now here comes trouble in the form of Zib. He’s interesting because he finds her interesting for more than her looks, her exotic nature or the fact that she knows what to do in any situation. But one gypsy recognises another – he’s a wanderer and for now, she doesn’t want to wander anywhere. So here she is, wanting more and recognising the potential crisis up ahead when he gets bored and wanders off again. Zib is trouble.

    Fumbling: What does the magician want? To be the best at what he does so he maintains his competitive edge. Everything and anything he could do to ensure this becomes top priority. And then he hears about the Memory Eater and since this is a short story, I will leave it at that. 😀

  5. Next question: How do your characters interact with each other?

    Shirt-tail ending: When Zib first walks in, he’s told what his duties are:
    Bartender: “You get in, you blow whatever the Queen tells you to, no questions asked. The girls aren’t off limits but they might as well be. Free grog. First sign of trouble and you’re out. First sign of trouble with the fly boys and all hands in to toss them out.”
    Zib: “The Queen?”
    Bartender: (nodding towards Kara) “Her. She’s a Rom. She can spot trouble with the punters because she knows them – they come here to see her trot. Apart from the boss, she’s the boss – the Queen bee. You play what she tells you, you jump in when she says, you punch the soldier boys when she needs you to. And no one, no client gets to see her off duty, no matter what they say.”Already you can see Zib’s interested. This setup is unlike anything else he has encountered. He’s bound to follow orders with a bit of cheek and after hours start chatting to her. She, on the other hand, is bound to be commanding at first. Later on, he will learn to read her body language as to whether she needs him to go up a key or kick out the over eager soldier boy. Most of the staff will be a bit short and terse with him at first since he’s the newcomer but he’s pretty used to that. It won’t take long before they relax around him though.

  6. The next step is to let them run riot. Seriously, you have a setting, a vague idea of what will happen and reasonably fleshed out major characters. Toss them in and let them run around for a bit and see what they come up with. It doesn’t matter if it’s a scene that’s at the end or the start of the story so long as you take notes.As you start thinking about it and jotting down notes, you will develop a plot and both plot and characters will influence each other. From here on in, you will find it hard to stop the process. Good luck!

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.

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