Whenever I embark on writing a work of fiction, I find myself struggling with my character development. My characters often take on qualities of the people in my own life; or if I attempt a first person narrative, they end up sounding just like me. Therefore, my writing research question is:
How do authors develop their characters?
I began by reading the interviews of some of my favorite authors, ones that I know have well-rounded and deeply developed characters in their books. Let’s start with Neil Gaiman, the prolific and adored science fiction author of books like American Gods and Neverwhere
Gaiman was asked about the character of Shadow, the protagonist of the book American Gods. The interviewer asks, “Let’s start with Shadow, who could be analyzed on several levels. How did you create the character of Shadow?”
Here is part of Gaiman’s response. “I thought that I would merely write how events strike a person and how they change him, and I will go from there … One of the things I found when writing Shadow is that he has no personality unless he’s with somebody. At which point he will adopt a personality, or occasionally mirror them.” (N. Gaiman, Writerswrite.com).
You can read the rest of the interview here.
This idea, that Shadow becomes a mirror to those he is with, is even reflected in the art on the book cover. We only see the back of him as he faces the storm of events that brew inside the book’s pages.
(McKean, Dave. Cover Illustration. 2001)
I find it interesting that Gaiman would begin by writing the character’s responses to events and other people. I always envisioned that an author sat down and sketched out all a character’s traits, likes, and dislikes before engaging them in situations or conversations. For the development of Shadow, it was actually the opposite of how I pictured it.
Gaiman isn’t the only author who writes his characters this way. In an interview with Orson Scott Card, again by Writerswrite.com, he details a similar process. “You don’t write characters, you write relationships. In practice this means that you must let characters have their own purposes and agendas, not just do what the plot requires, … nobody is the same person to everyone — who they are depends in large part on whom they’re with.” (O.S. Card, Writerswrite.com).
So, both of these authors allow their storylines to define and create the characters within them. This process makes a lot of sense, and I suppose it is more realistic than my original theory; that each character was fully mapped and developed in an author’s mind before the story line begins. In life, we do not come into the world with a pre-determined set of characteristics and responses. We are molded by our environments and by the events that happen in our lives. We learn how to react to the world from the people in our lives and we are shaped by our relationships more than most realize.
Learning this about character development has me excited to try my hand at it again! Characters, like people and personalities, do not exist in a bubble. They are constantly reacting to and being shaped by the world around them. The key is to write the situation, or an event, first. Throw your hazily defined character into it and see how they react and evolve!
White, Claire E. “Orson Scott Card Interview.” Writers Write, https://www.writerswrite.com/journal/orson-scott-card-9992.
White , Claire E. “Interview with Neil Gaiman: American Gods, Coraline and More!” Writers Write, https://www.writerswrite.com/journal/neil-gaiman-7011.
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