Reading a biography of author Monica Dickens recently, I was interested to see her quoted as comenting with regard to her writing process: ‘the best characters just write themselves’.
‘Writes itself’. That’s a phrase we see a lot – or variations of it. It broadly refers to, I think, a relative ease in producing writing at the drafting stage (with a nod to the fact that the slog of re-writing and editing are yet to come). Within that, though, the phrase can have different, nuanced, meanings.
In the case of fictional characters, sometimes you can visualize them, see and hear them in action – even, with the writer’s ‘god’s eye’ perspective, overhear what they are thinking. His eyes are hazel. He is from Ecuador – no particular reason, he simply is. He hates eggs – but of course. Indeed, Jorge would never contemplate eating eggs; he even pretends to be allergic to them. He adores pasta though, is a self-taught cook, if rather messy. Enjoys playing smooth jazz, too, though he never really mastered the saxophone – not with that impatient temperament of his. These are simply facts. And though the reader will never find this out, he hates anyone knowing, but Jorge didn’t lose his virginity until he was 25.
When characters ‘appear’ like this, it makes it (relatively) easy to decide what a character would do, how they would respond, at certain points in a plot. This will be useful in writing a character-driven story but, of course, is potentially inconvenient in one that is more plot-driven.
Amongst the multifarious pieces of advice that exists on creative writing, a lot of people will advocate getting to know your characters in full, even ‘interviewing’ them in detail. Masterclass, for example, has a comprehensive list of 45 questions to ask your characters, linked here, covering appearance, back story, personality, interests, personal belongings, thoughts and emotions. You may not, of course, include all of these details in the text; however, the idea is that a fully fleshed out character will help your characters to appear real to the reader, human flaws, warts, quirks, and all.
Inevitably, because there is no single way to write, not everyone agrees with this approach. Novelist Neil Griffiths, for one. A few years ago, Griffiths wrote an article, I’m an author in search of my characters, in which he described writing characters (or ‘novel-inhabiting people’, as he describes them) ‘from the outside in’. As with people in real-life, we can observe and draw conclusions from expressions, gestures, actions, words, but we cannot access the true ‘quality of their souls’ – their inner selves, thoughts, motives, feelings… ‘People aren’t predictable; they are mostly unknowable,’ Griffiths reminds us, suggesting that to learn every aspect of a character is to exert too much control over them as a writer – as opposed to letting the characters take over.
Here is author Anna Burns, interviewed about her Booker-prize winning novel Milkman and her writing own process:
‘My characters tell me who they are – and what it is they want me to do. I’m allowed to enthusiastically second-guess, they don’t mind that, which is nice of them.” But “When it comes to the end, to wrap up time, I realise once again that my characters have ignored all my clever guesswork.’
It’s not explicitly stated, but this suggests that Burns, rather than pre-deciding every trait and biographical detail of her characters in advance, allows them to emerge and, as Griffiths describes it, to take control during the composition process.
This gives me a lot to think about. I now realise in the above paragraph I phrased it, unconsciously, as ‘decide what a character would do’ – as in I, the writer will decide, based on all that I know about ‘my’ character, down to the last detail. When characters have not presented themselves fully formed, this has irked me in the past. To remedy it, I have gone down the ‘biography’ route, detailing them both inside and out, usually before pen has been put to paper (or the first key struck).
This isn’t necessarily ‘wrong’. As author Damyanti Biswas put it: ‘When you are a pantser [i.e. a writer who writers without an outline or clear advance plan], it is a lot of back and forth, a lot of writing that may need to be deleted, directions that won’t work, characters that don’t behave the way you think they should, and situations that emerge as thunderbolts in your fingers as you type.’
If you are an ‘outliner’ rather than a ‘pantser’, the relaxed ‘let’s see where it takes me’ approach may not work for you. I’ve very much been an ‘outliner’ or planner myself. I am, I admit, a bit of a control freak. in my day job, it’s pretty much an occupational hazard.
However, I have been looking to experiment, looking at ways to write more spontaneously. Next time, I will try relinquishing control, bear in mind that the most realistic factor of all is that we can never really ‘know’ anyone. Try allowing the characters space and time to assert themselves until they are ready to take over.