I closed Part I of this by saying that the titular question is one I often answer for every character I create, sometimes without really knowing I’m doing it. Let’s take that idea and turn it into a conscious exercise. This is something I used to love doing in drama/theatre classes at school – the character interview, taken to a deeper level.
In Take Off Your Pants, Libbie Hawker suggests the idea of giving your main character a flaw to deal with, and structuring the story around how they do it, and whether or not they succeed. Although I’m a pantser by nature, writing Part I of this post made me wonder if what I do in my head really isn’t so different from the structured approach LH has, just with a different starting point: my character may have flaws to overcome, or virtues to show off, but when all’s said and done, why do they exist?
Or perhaps more importantly, why do they believe they exist?
I’m not talking Descartes Conundrum here (that’s the ‘Do we really exist?’ thing…I think). I’m talking: who is Character X now, who do they want to become, and what’s going to drive them to become that person? I know that ‘What/who do you want to be?’ are slightly different question, but for the purposes of this, let’s stick with the idea of a character’s ambitions being linked to a desire for a fulfilling life and discovering its meaning.
So, do they get there, or do they end up getting somewhere else? At the end of the story, what will their answer to ‘Who am I and why am I here?’ be? I’ll stick a possible variable in here, just for good measure: maybe Character X actually doesn’t want to be any different, or become anything or anyone special. Maybe it takes a catalyst to make that happen (I recently read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, which is a great example of that variable in action.)
This approach can work well whether you’re a planner or a pantser, because you’re going to do two interviews with your character, and ask just those two simple (HAHA!) questions ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you here?’ You’ll ask them before your story begins, and again after it’s ended.
If you’re a pantser staying true to your nature, you won’t be able to do the second interview until you’ve written your draft. Then you can sit back, look at those answers and decide whether to adjust them. Maybe you won’t even want to do the first interview all that much, except I’d wager that even the most hardcore among us have at least some vague idea about why they want to tell a person’s story before they put pen to paper. Start by seeing if you can link that to who you think your character actually is.
Planners, go to town on all these details and you’ll have all the makings of ‘Get character X through the story of who they are now to who they become’ and then you can plan the steps between.
It’s really as simple as that. Just take five minutes and think this through for a character you’ve already created, or perhaps start with a brand new one. You’re probably already getting ideas. Write them down if you like notes, or just sit and meditate on it for a few. (You don’t even have to name your character yet. X is fine. Especially if you’re as obsessive over getting names that feel like they fit as I am.)
Done that? Okay, now comes the fun part…
How self-aware is your character? Is this story going to be an obvious case of your MC saying ‘I’m this person right now, I think this is what my life’s for and I want to achieve this, now let’s go do it’ and then at the end reflecting on how much success they’ve had? (I’m thinking of Henry Hill in the movie Goodfellas right now, from ‘I always wanted to be a gangster’ to ‘I get to live the rest of my life like a schmuck.’) Or is their voyage of discovery going to be one they kinda realise is happening but at the same time don’t directly reflect on in any narrative (whether 1st or 3rd person)?
If you want a great example of a self-aware narrator going through this kind of journey and then coming to a conclusion about where he’s ended up, read The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth. If you want a story where the narrator isn’t as reflective but more of a reporter, observer, and survivor of challenging times but who clearly does go through a process that could search most souls to their core, read The Forever War by Joe Halderman.
This is the point where I’ll admit that this approach might not be the one for you if you’re not given to writing stories that are in any way reflective. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with being an author who isn’t into big questions and naval gazing. If you’re out to write potboilers based on suspense with tight plots and highly economical narrative, chances are I lost you quite a while ago anyway. But if you’re still with me and something here is resonating, I’ll extrapolate a bit.
This is the kind of writing I got into after a friend of mine read an early draft of what became Shadow’s Talent and told me it was far too plot driven with too much stuff happening quickly and there really wasn’t much reflecting. In some muddled way, I connected the idea that heavy character creation and reflective styles of writing could link quite well, so I went deeper into the sort of stuff I’m going on about here.
The same beta-reader also said to me ‘I don’t see any of you in this’ when he read that early draft. Of course I came out with a smartarse line like ‘Someone who’d known me for more than a handful of less than sober evenings might see what you don’t,’ and then reached for my cigarettes like many writers do when they’ve just heard a tough crit that they know to be right on some level. (I’ve quit since then. Nowadays I just reach for another drink or go for a run.) It took me a lot of playing with big questions surrounding my MC before I really felt like there was something of me in that book.
I know I’m going to get into TLDR territory here, so I’ll give you a get-out point right here. Here ends Part II. If it suits you, just try my exercise out and see what you get. But remember, it doesn’t have to be just a black and white hotseat exercise with your character. You can always put it into a context that’s relevant to your story. The question ‘Who are you?’ can take some pretty scene-making turns depending on who’s asking it, and maybe more importantly why…
Part III will consist of me playing with the exercise I described above with a couple of my own characters, for the purposes of exploring some of the variables.