If you’ve read several of my blog posts, you know a little about me. Perhaps you know that I’m a history buff, I’m no good at writing nonfiction, and I cry easily. You might know how old I was when I fell in love with writing and what eighth grade sports team I didn’t get on and why. Maybe you know that I’ve done many critiques or that I belong to two critique groups. You probably know that I met the Swaggers at Highlights Foundations workshops, & that I’m a huge fan of those workshops.
If you clicked on my name at the top of the blog, you likely know that I’m one of seven siblings, and perhaps you’ve seen mentions of a couple of them in blog posts (Pete on 3/19/12 and “Mikey” on 12/10/11).
If you read my WHERE I AM FROM poem, you know my parents’ names and what they did for a living.
But could you write a book about me? Not likely. Could you write one from my point of view? Of course not.
To do that, you’d have to know how I feel about things. You’d have to know my strengths and weaknesses. You’d have to know where I was raised, how I was raised, and how that helped to make me the way I am. You’d have to know who my best friend is. (Clue: I’m married to him.) You’d have to know that I usually wear seven rings, and that each one has a story behind it. You’d have to know my hobbies and what is nearly always in my pocket.
Yet, I have done critiques for writers who knew nearly nothing about their main characters’ backgrounds. They plunked them onto Page One without giving them a past. I have asked, “How old is he?” and been told “About eight or nine.” About? Really?
Writers are usually taught to ask: What does the character want more than anything else? And what is she willing to do to get it? These questions are a good way to begin, but they only scratch the surface.
If your character is stubborn and determined, is it in her genes? If so, you’d have to know about her parents. Or perhaps something in her past may have caused her to be that way? What was it? If you don’t know, you’d better find out before you type Chapter One at the top of the page.
When I begin a new story (short story or novel), I have a list of questions I ask about my main character before I start. To tell the story, I need to be inside the protagonist’s head. I have to live inside her skin. I can’t do that without answering those questions.
I also ask questions about other characters that will be in the story. Getting all these answers beforehand helps me to write the story. I often find the characters I create will help me. If I try to make them do something that is out of character for them, they stop me.
Even though I make up a full, rich past for my characters, I don’t put all that information into the story. I have to decide what’s important to move the story along and what isn’t. But I still need to know these things. If I want a story to have heart, then my characters have to seem like real people to the reader. Before I can do that, they have to be real to ME!