by Barbara Linn Probst
Stories are about what happens to the characters in them. It doesn’t matter if those characters are robots, pigs, spiders, or dragons. We read to find out how the character’s schemes and adventures turned out. Without characters, there’s no story.
In my experience, characters are “born” in different ways. Some appear fully-formed—how they look and talk, even their names. Others appear slowly, like a person walking toward me from far away. And still others have to be wrestled into existence; they almost seem to resist my need for them, requiring endless re-envisioning.
It doesn’t seem to depend on the character’s age, gender, background, personality, or how similar (or different) we are. In The Sound Between the Notes, for example, there are two minor characters, Beryl Dumont and Jimmy Ray Calhoun, who made themselves known to me at once, right down to their names. I didn’t have to search, struggle, or even think about how to bring them to life; they were vivid and authentic from the very beginning.
I wonder, sometimes: do we invent our characters, or do we get to know them? Do we build them, bit by bit, out of our storehouse of details and knowledge, as a landscaper might? Or do we coax them into existence, like a midwife, and marvel at the new person we’re eager to know?
Below are four questions, along with some practical strategies, that can help to create characters who are fully alive.
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