The 11th Hour: Evolution of Characters

The thing that really makes me dwell on an idea; that really makes me want to spend time on a seed and see if it will sprout is the presence of a solid character. This character doesn't need a face, s/he doesn't need a name or an age... but the presence needs to be there. There needs to be potential for something strong. A powerful character/cast of characters will help you build the world they live in, and are probably the key components to having a story that will hook and impress. Regardless of how long I've been working at it; whether I've been planning a story for a year or a day, the presence of a strong character makes it stick. The development of said character is the part I enjoy the most, because it is one of the purest forms of creation/discovery I've ever experienced.

Imagine you're walking down a damp street at night. You've had a bad day at work, the air is cold, and all you can think about is getting home and going to bed and disappearing from the world for at least 8 hours. As you're walking, you pass a wall covered with posters promoting some generic something or other that you couldn't care less about. But as you're about to turn the corner onto your street, you notice one of the posters is not secured down and you can see something peeking out from underneath. Your curiosity gets the best of you, and you begin picking at the poster. It begins to pull away and underneath is a half finished mural. The more you reveal, the more excited you get. You begin tearing feverishly at the posters and, once a large enough portion is revealed, you begin to add to it. This would look better if you added this, and oh look if I reveal this piece than it makes this make more sense, and if I add this it all ties together... and before long the cold is not irritating but revitalizing, and the smell of rain is on fire in your nostrils and nothing at all could ever tear you away from this mural until you've finished. That's what it feels like when you start developing a solid character. The entire story feeds off of itself, and the whole thing started from this vague blob of a presence.

For The 11th Hour, that vague blob became Astrid Miller, and Astrid was born from a memory I had from Montana. Camden had left his shoes at the bottom of the hill and made me go down and get them and on my way up he said "HURRY UP UP UP!" My response was "hey, you don't get to tell me how fast to climb up this hill, I'm down here because of you!" And that right there was Astrid. She was meant to be the main character of my Under the Tuscan Sun idea, and stuck around as I melted all three ideas into one. The 11th Hour was the vehicle, and Astrid was the driver.

The best thing about a solid character is, 9 times out of 10, they talk to you. I realize that makes me sound insane but what I mean is... characters are constructed out of a number of things, not the least of which are environment, emotion, and social interaction. Inspiration for each of these traits can come from anywhere, and what it means to have a character talk to you is... say you're just listening to music, and you come across a song that has a certain mood to it, a certain sound, and suddenly, you feel like the character is saying "hey hey this is my theme song". The lyrics of that song, the mood, those then help solidify your character. The more definitive your character gets, the easier it is to build a world that could deal with her. If your character is this strong, than your world needs to oppress her this much, etc. etc.

The most important thing to focus on is his/her voice. A character needs a voice. This is, in a way, the essence of the character. It portrays how they interact with others/the world around them. It is effected by their past and will effect their future. One of the best ways I've found to solidify a character voice is through dialogue. This also happens to be my favorite way to fish for supporting characters. Basically, you just think of scenarios and adjust how your character would react. If Person X said this, your character would respond how? Stuff like that. Once you have a pretty good idea of their voice - it is important to realize that a character's voice will probably never be complete until the novel is complete - then you can start focusing on their physical attributes.

I've found the easiest way to solidify a character physically is to jot down or sketch out an idea of what the character would look like, and then "cast" them. For instance, given the voice and idea I had for Astrid, I used actress Odette Yustman to solidify her. She fit the character perfectly, and made it so that I could visualize her while constructing her. Then, if your story calls for it, you construct the character's background.

This, to me, is also very important. It seems silly to quote a children's movie, but I'm often reminded of Mater's line from Cars: "Don't gotta know where I'm going, just gotta know where I've been." This is the simplest way I can think to explain why character backgrounds are so important to me. Usually, the novel itself will serve as the move forward. You can outline and have an ultimate idea of where the character will end up, but your character will have a difficult time figuring out where they're going if you have no idea where they've been and what they've been through. This does not have to be specific. You just need to have an idea of what they went through; in Astrid's case, it was one idea. Her parents were murdered by the current dictator, and she wanted revenge.

At this point in development, steps start overlapping. Voice helps solidify background which finds new music to help solidify voice which finds even more music which adds to the background which adds to the voice, which effects social interaction, which helps develop other characters and solidify their voice, etc. etc. It is this fashion in which the story itself begins to develop: characters help create the world which creates the circumstances that help create the characters that create events and places that help further construct the world that further solidifies characters that create circumstances, etc. etc.

Finally, when I feel a character can stand on its own two feet, I write out character bios, organizing all the ideas and creating this person that, if alive in this world, would more than likely blend right in and whose life is intricately woven one way or the other with the life/lives of someone else.

And just the feeling of finishing the last paragraph and looking at where that character started - as this vague blob of nothing - and seeing what it's become... well, it's like pure creation, and there is truly nothing like it.

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Kay said...

I am so excited to begin reading The 11th Hour. I love how you are taking us on the journey with you.