John Ostrander’s Writing Class: Details Details Details
Last week, I wrote about plot and character and I applied Newton’s First Law of Physics – a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force – to both. I want to delve this week a little more into character.
The basics. Every character you write is you, some aspect of you. If it isn’t, the character is stillborn. There’s no life in it. We all have many different aspects to ourselves. Different people bring out those different aspects. Good, bad, indifferent – every character is you. I once described Story as an author talking to him/herself. It helps, therefore, if you are aware of those different aspects you possess.
So the first step in creating a character is finding yourself in that character. It is, however, only the first step – a broad outline. To fill in the character, you need details. You also need to write them down. It’s not real until you’ve put it into words. Having it in your head is all very well but the character doesn’t exist until it’s written.
Character is found in contradiction. Never try to explain a contradiction away; put it out there for the reader to explain it. Every wise man is a fool in some way. If you love someone, there will be moments when you hate them. Parents and children, taken together, are evidence of this. (“I hate you!” “I brought you into this life and I can take you out!”) You may love someone more than you hate them but there will be moments when you would gladly strangle that person you love, if only for that moment.
The great rule in writing is “Write what you know” but what do you know? Yes, there are specifics and you should know them; if you’re going to write about a policeman, you need to know something of how they live their lives. What you really have to write is what you know to be true in life. Not what you were told was true; what has your own life taught you to be true. What do you know from experience? That’s what has to go into your characters.
Details matter and they can go from the broad to the very specific. What is the gender, age, race, ethnicity? Not just for the main characters but for the minor characters as well. Give them names. The more specific you are, the more real they become to you and thus the more real they will be to your reader.
What clothes do they wear? Peter Parker dresses differently than Bruce Wayne. Where do they shop for clothes? Armani? The Gap? James Bond has a signature look – he should be in a tuxedo at least once in a story. Clark Kent wears glasses.
What is their background? Do they have siblings? Oldest, youngest, middle child? Do they/did they have pets? What are their quirks? What are their foibles? What habits do they have? What hobbies? What pet peeves?
What do they believe (and not simply about God)? Do they believe in their country? Do they believe patriotism is for fools? Do they have a cause? Do they think white chocolate is a form of chocolate? What other delusions do they have? You need to ask yourself questions and you need to write the answers down. You’re like a photographer trying to pull an image into focus; details are the lens.
You won’t use all the details you discover but you need to know them in order to be able to choose which ones to display. When Tim Truman and I began our work on GrimJack we knew a lot more about the character, his background, and his setting than we told right away. The readers sensed there was more to the story; they sensed a depth and a reality and they trusted us as a result. You pick and choose the details to fit the story, that will drive the narrative and reveal the character. You need to know and then you have to forget it all and just write, letting the details work on your subconscious and guide the story.
That’s the job.