I recently completed Draft 2 of my current manuscript. Each draft I write, I learn more about my characters—that’s right, I learn. In turn, the more I become attached and invested in their story. Attachment and investment, I believe, are qualities of a passionate writer, and passion is the backbone of any goal.
But passion alone will not produce a strong novel. Among many qualities, a writer must be humble in their role in a character’s growth. When a character is ready, the writer must allow the character their freedom.
Typically when I create a character, it starts with a flash image (like a still photograph) and then a name (sometimes a name comes first, then the image). Undefined at the character’s birth are their behaviours, their mannerisms, their fears, their dreams. Traits like these take many drafts to develop. I experiment with a character’s personality by putting them in different situations and testing various responses, emotions, reactions. It’s a learning process where the character eventually becomes the teacher.
I am often surprised by who my characters end up becoming, the choices they make, the emotions they experience, the situations they find themselves in. Strange perhaps to think of a character independent of its creator, but that’s what it often feels like, and I think that’s a positive.
The state of creativity, I think, is only partly conscious, that for a writer to write well, they must loosen their grasp on reality (while they’re writing). After all, fiction by definition is not reality, though fiction sets out to mirror it (at least the fiction I write). As characters become stronger (as their traits become defined), the writer’s control over them weakens; a good sign that your characters are becoming like real, believable, people. These are the types of characters present in great books, and the types of characters I strive to have living within my own novels.
During the process of writing a novel, I get to the point where I have to write my characters in a certain way, not because I want to (in the sense of in that moment), but because that’s who they have become—fictionally breathing people with their own set of values, emotions, fears, and dreams. As the writer, just because I have omnipotent power over my characters, it doesn’t mean it’s suitable for me to exercise it. Better to let the character be who they have become through your hard work—a compliment to a writer who has created a character so defined and life-like that even free-will is bestowed. An avant-garde concept, yes.
Create your characters, hone their traits through experimentation, and then free them from your omnipotent control. Honour your relationship with your characters, and your novel will be better for it.