I always feel a moment of panic when the kids come over and want to help me cook. They are anxious to try out every idea they have ever heard – hygiene be damned. One of the latest ideas that they had heard was that they should throw partially cooked spaghetti against the wall as a way to determine whether it had been boiled long enough.
Not in my kitchen.
But it does serve as a good metaphor for how I create my characters.
I’ll admit that character creation can be difficult for me. When I first start working on a story, I have no idea what kind of characters I need, but I need the characters before I can create more of the story. The way that I usually deal with this problem is to create characters, throw them at the wall periodically, and see which ones actually stick.
Let me give you an example.
I am writing about witches in my current story. The main character is going to be a young woman that inherits some property and discovers that she is a witch through connections to the property that she inherited. First order of business was to create someone that would leave her something to inherit. I created a grandmother. I imagined the grandmother as a nice lady, elderly, doing her grandmotherly thing; then dying and leaving something to her granddaughter.
As the story developed, I wanted the grandparent to be trying to protect their family as well as themselves. Since family is something that is extremely difficult to separate from under normal circumstances, I changed the grandmother into a grandfather and made them gay. That way they could have a child, come out of the closet, divorce, and the world would begin to think of them as not really related.
As I began to put the ages on the characters to make the story work, I realized that a grandparent was too far removed. I needed to make them a parent. So the grandfather was downgraded to a father, but I kept the same gay thread to the story. But gay relationships almost universally accepted in the United States, and gay marriage isn’t that far behind. If I wanted to really put some distance between the family members, the mother would have to be complicit in the act. So the gay father becomes a straight father that played the part of a gay man to provide his family with the distance they needed for their own protection.
Each step of the process has modified the character, thrown them against the proverbial wall, and watched to see if they would stick. I don’t really build the story around my characters, nor do I build my characters around my story. Both story and characters have to work together to make something of value to me. It is a process of trial and error; especially at the start of the story. The way I create characters and stories generates a huge amount of words that are discarded as the story idea evolves, but I try to enjoy the fun of slinging the characters against the wall as well as the perfectly cooked story it helps to create.