As I write this it's a little after 11pm Saturday night and I'm downtown Ann Arbor killing time before heading over to see a midnight showing of TAXI DRIVER, one of my favorite movies. It's odd, when I was single and lived down here I never made it to any of these midnight movies, but now, married and living on the outskirts here I am. I'm also at the Starbucks where I used to go when I absolutely needed to finish something because it used to be the only joint in town without free wireless access. Alas, it's finally succumbed.
So what am I working on? Well I'm glad you asked. I'm working on revisions for MURDER BOY of course...sort of. While I'm not generating any new prose, per say, I'm generating many pages about the characters in the novel. Because, you see, while I know the story, and thought I knew the characters, I do not know what really makes them tick. I recently got the manuscript back from an agent who was nice enough to send me about 2 pages of what was wrong with it. For some that might be heartbreaking, for me it was educational. What the letter basically boiled down to though was you characters, who we don't really get to know, go around doing things that don't seem to mean anything to them.
This was a bit of a shock to me because one common in all of the other agent letters I've received for other novels was that I had a knack for creating cool characters. But those were all first person novels, which is my natural storytelling voice, and lends itself better to fully developing a character. So of course I went back and tried writing MURDER BOY in first person and failed miserably. This is a story that needs to be told in third person and it needs to be told in multiple viewpoints. This agent did point to a couple of characters she thought were interesting, and I agreed. So instead of the 10 or so characters I tried to cram into the previous drafts, I want to focus just on a core of 4-5. So I went back and started from scratch. The first 15 pages came easy, they were about my main character, I already know what makes him tick, he's me, mostly. But then I switched to the viewpoint of the antagonist and froze up.
While this guy had some neat character quirks and I knew what his goals and motivations were story-wise, I had no idea what made him tick. I had no idea how he would react in the various scenarios he's thrust into over the course of the novel. I needed to know where he came from. What made him who he was and, most importantly, what kind of cell phone he used. Yes, believe it or not, that's the piece of information I've struggled most over regarding my antagonist, his choice of cell phone. But as I ran the various options through my head I realized a person's choice of cell phone can say HUGE things about that person as a character. Are they contract or buy-the-minute sorts? Basic phone or all the bells and whistles. BlackBerry, iPhone, or Droid. I thought more about this than I ever could have imagined, but by the end of it I had some very keen insights into this character. And, more importantly, I had a way into his opening scene. Now, instead of a cliched scene of a bounty hunter spying on someone, I open with him at one of those high pressure cell phone kiosks trying to decide what sort of cell phone he's going to buy.
SO tell me, folks, as a writer, how do you make your characters tick? How much do you need to know about them before you start writing? And for the readers, how much do you like to see about a character on the page? If an author posts interviews and character studies and such on their website do you like to know back story and all of that or do you only care about what's happening to them immediately in the story?