Guest post: Lisa Soem on the construction of characters

I’d like to welcome my co-writer Lisa back to the blog again today. Her last post on what’s involved in co-writing something as hefty as an entire book was awesome, and this is awesome as well. Enjoy.


LineandOrbitWriting SciFi is fun for a lot of reasons, the world building, the aliens, doing research on orbits and nebulae on Wiki at 4am, but one of my favorite parts of writing L&O was the characters we spun out.  I’m astonished by the awesome feedback we’ve gotten.  It seems like a lot of people really enjoyed our cast, which, not gonna lie, makes me want to preen.

The last time Sunny asked me to guest blog, I talked about what it was like writing with a co-author.  In the initial stages of L&O’s development we each wrote predominantly from one character’s POV (I started with Lock, Sunny with Adam), and over time we became more fluid and switched back and forth, and added a number of other POV characters to the mix.  Because of our history with RPing, the characters were the most important part of story development.  The plot and the world building were only interesting if we had fleshed out, three-dimensional individuals to live through it.

So, I still feel odd doling out advice about writing, given that I am at this moment sitting hung over on my couch in my grad student apartment, but! I guess everyone starts somewhere.  Here we go:

1) Your characters lived entire lives before your story started. They had childhoods; maybe they fell in love at sixteen, maybe they worked the same shit jobs for thirty years and retired, maybe they peaked in high school, or in their golden years.  They’ve had experiences that have led them to your story, but they also went through the mundane aspects of life.  Presidents and pickpockets have both probably been frustrated by traffic, we’re all tied together by the little moments of boredom.  I’ve found it really helpful to keep those histories in mind, and not just the huge, defining moments.  It’s easier to write real, solid people when you have a firm grip on their humanity.

2) Your supporting characters are important, don’t let them slip by. So you’ve got your stars developed; they’re vibrant and well-imagined and they play well together.  Most stories, however, have more than two players, even if they won’t get a lot of screen time.  Skimping on their development or letting them get replaced by cardboard cutouts is tempting, but ultimately draws a lonely picture for your stars.  Being the only interesting people in the galaxy must be exhausting.  Our supporting characters in L&O are the reason the book was so fun to write.  Sunny and I both had moments where we said “This person has SUCH an awesome story, we have to figure out how to tell people about it.”  So, for anyone looking foward to sequels and/or missing scenes, be ready, we’ll probably have a few treats coming out soon.  Anyway < / promo >, treat everyone in your story like a real person.  It’s so much more fun that way.

3) Have more insight into your characters than they do. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not as self-actualized as could be.  But, the vast swath of humanity isn’t either, so I figure I’m doing okay. So, this one basically means “Show, don’t tell,” which has been said a hundred times and bears repeating. Show, don’t tell, show, don’t tell.  A lot of fiction is written in limited 3rd person, so the reader is experiencing things through one of your characters’ eyes.  You show five different characters the same thing, chances are they’ll see it five different ways.  Using your characterization to flavor the narrative’s perception of things can be a great way to subtly bring out some of your characterization, even when the character thinks they’re looking at events impartially.  And, when your POV character is going through internal turmoil, it can make a huge different to lead the reader through what they’re thinking, without stating “He felt guilty.”  Your readers are smart, they’ll get the picture.

4) Don’t write a plot and fill it with characters. So, this one is my biggie tip.  When you write something plotty, it is easy to get caught up in whirlwind of planning; how you’ll make the stark beauty of the landscape tangible, where you’ll leave cliffhangers and red herrings, weave involved storylines into something exciting and complete.  But, all that planning can fall short of something excellent if the characters are left as avatars that exist only to advance the story.  Your novel could easily start with you imagining an awesomely climactic scene, but to treat the whole story as motions that deposit the reader there probably won’t be so successful.  If you have your plot in mind ahead of your characters, it’s important to sit down and decide what kind of person you need to create that will achieve all the goals you’ve laid before them.  They need to have the right temperament, the right motivation, and you should know what about their lives has made them into that person.  Even if you don’t include every detail of their life and motivation in the writing, having it in your head as you lead them through the obstacle course of your plot will make their reactions and motivation far more genuine.  In essence, the plot should be driven by your characters, rather than a maze you cast faceless individuals into.

I hope this was helpful!  It was fun to write, even if trying to break down how I do characters into bullet points was a bit of a challenge.  Mostly, have fun with it.  Talk to yourself.  Write silly side stories for your own amusement, if only to see how your cast handles themselves in all and sundry situations.  Treat them like your crazy friends who make you want to pull your hair out because, ugh, Christ, how did they end up in this situation again?  Characters are, well, characters.  They can be weird and quirky and, like in the real world, they’re what make life more interesting.  Have at it!

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