Saturday, January 16, 2010

Creating Characters

Much has been made about the chronological discrepancies in the Sherlock Holmes stories. As I'm reading the first collection of short stories, Leslie Klinger, in the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, notes all the problems in the timeline. It's lucky Conan Doyle didn't have a rabid, online fan base to nitpick every new story like we do now.

Pulp author Robert E. Howard conceived of his most famous character, Conan, in 1932, while traveling around Texas. While I haven't read any but the first, "The Phoenix on the Sword," I know enough to write that Howard wrote and published the Conan stories as they occurred to him. That's why, if you read a collection of Conan stories arranged by publication date, the great barbarian is a king in one story, a young warrior in the next, and so on. One writer somewhere stated that the publication order of the Conan stories is like Howard telling you stories while sitting around a campfire.

The thing is, unless a writer makes a conscious effort to have certain characters firmly fleshed out before the first word is ever written, the process of writing reveals aspects of a character the writer never thought about. In addition, an author might have certain ideas about a character ready to go when the first word is written and, yet, never return to them in the course of writing the stories. Such is the case with the new Sherlock Holmes movie, the first Holmes novel, and the fact that Holmes was listed as an expert boxer.

I encountered something akin to this type of thing recently in my own writing. Last year, in a one-sitting fit, I created Calvin Carter, a railroad detective. I wrote his literal first adventure as a detective and the good folks at Beat to a Pulp thought the piece entertaining enough to publish it. You can find the link over there on the right. The things I had Carter say and do just came to me, as my fingers pecked at the keyboard. I can't say where they emerged only that the sheer amount of stuff I've consumed over the forty-year span of my life embeds things that just bubble up from time to time.

When it came time for me to write Carter's second story--now completed and in the editing process--I realized a template had been created for him. I hadn't set out to create one--like Charles Ardai did with Gabriel Hunt--and, frankly, still haven't. I knew one thing: the way he revealed his deductions was both intellectual and slightly show-offy (how's that for a fancy word?). I knew, as I approached that particular scene in Story #2 that Carter would present the facts in much the same way. And so he did. Interestingly, in the writing of Story #2, Carter revealed a few particulars about himself I didn't know. I've decided to start taking notes as I interact with Carter and create for him the Carter Bible, the tome where I can collect all the passing references I write for him. It'll be great fun to look back on in the future, especially if he takes me in a different direction.

How do you create your characters? Do you have them fully fleshed out ahead of time or do they grow and change as you write?


David Cranmer said...

James Reasoner over at Rough Edges, talks about his style of writing (the post is titled Instinct) and I've come to emulate it. Basically, have a general outline of where you are going. Maybe five or six chapters and let the characters fill in the pages for you as you write. Not for everyone. But I tried the detail notes route and found it suffocating.

I've also decided to have some fun with my character Cash Laramie. Chronologically the seven stories I've written (only one thus published) are all out of order. A character dies in one adventure only to appear in the next. It's more fun that way.

And I can imagine that Mr. Doyle had some serious nitpickers back in the day. The rabid following then was much worse. I mean people who take to wearing black arm bands when a fictional character dies probably had some severe thought about the way he was living.

(great post Scott)

Scott D. Parker said...

David - Thanks. I had written and posted this blog entry before I read Reasoner's post. I chuckled at the ironic timing. When I wrote my Harry Truman novel, I did have a chapter-by-chapter outline and knew where all the players were and what they were to do. The joy of that process was that the characters told me hold they went about their activities. And I forgot about the arm bands. Thanks for the reminder.

Dana King said...

I forget where I read this (a lesser man would take credit for it himself), but someone smarter than I said the writer's knowledge of the character should evolve. We don't meet someone and know all there is to know about them right away; so should it be with our fictional creations. Each new discovery should make some sense relative to what came before, but I agree with David; writing too much of a Bible before starting would be suffocating. I sketch out some backstory for many of my characters before I start, but their "character" (foibles, tastes, prejudice) evolve as I know them better.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I strart with a sentence, a vision, an idea--never knowing where it will take me. That's the only fun in it.

Jay Stringer said...

on writing the first draft of my first manuscript, the story started out with a simple premise and a central character.

It was going to be a short story, a murder mystery in which the barman at one of my regular pubs gets dragged into a tangled web and ends badly. He was going to be a monosyllabic grunt.

Somewhere around 2000 words it became clear that the story was going to run a little longer, and then i ended up with a novel length manuscript. But the central character just didn't work, he was dull. He was still a guy who belonged in a short story.

Then someone else, one of the other guys at the bar in the opening scene, started talking and i realised he was the main character, and things started to get interesting. Now i have more than one story in my head for this guy.

Before that happened, i always thought the guys who talked about 'listening to their characters' were just being arty. Now, i sit and listen to every word my characters say.