Monday, 7 July 2014

Character Building

"Character is plot, plot is character."

I would imagine that Francis Scott Fitzgerald's words are embedded into the brains of most writers (both budding and fully fledged); they've been ingrained in mine since I went to my first writing seminar several years ago, not that I ever really paid much attention to them.

In my (short) experience as a writer, the big question that dominates most aspiring writer's lips seems to be which is more important, character or plot? It's like the great, unanswerable chicken and egg question for writers. It is a question that has permeated every seminar/class/course/workshop that I've ever attended (which hasn't been as many as I'm making out in that sentence) and has always sparked a significant amount of debate and thought within my peers. Except for me. I always knew my answer. Easy. Plot. Next question please.

Okay, I'm painfully aware that that makes me sound like a pretentious know it all and I'm now eagerly trying to dispel that notion. I'm not a know it all, in fact I'm so inconspicuous in any class I attend that most of the teachers don't notice me until about the 4th week (they might know my name by week 8). I have a tendency to absorb most of my information through observation and reflection, which means I occasionally fade into the background in many writing courses.

Most of the facilitators of any writing course I've ever attended have said that a good character is what drives a novel and that plot is a secondary feature. I would diligently note this advice in my notebook, underlining and bullet pointing it while internally rolling my eyes in disagreement, externally nodding and "hmmm"ing in mock agreement with my peers.

For me, I've always been an advocate of plot over character for the simple reason that I believe writing is story telling. Yes, of course the use of language is vital and character development and transformation are intrinsically linked to plot progress. But I've always viewed the plot as the story, and without a story, one has no novel. Black and white, perhaps, but it's been my naive, simplistic way of working through the novel progress.

It's only now as I actually write my novel (yes, I know!) that I can sheepishly look back to each seminar/class/course/workshop with a pinch of humility and gratitude for my meekness. The proverbial lightbulb has switched on over my head. Of course character development makes a novel! How did it take me so long to realise it? ("Because you weren't writing your book, Sinead" - brain).

One of the most basic steps in developing a character is a character outline, almost an assessment of your character's personality, appearance, attributes, flaws etc. It's a basic tool to help the writer get to know the character. I've done this for David, my main character. In fact, I've done it several times for David to try and get to know a little bit more about him every time he comes into my head. Another exercise that most writing courses carry out is the embodiment of the character: as in, the writer acts out the character, their physical traits, speech pattern, mannerisms, facial expressions etc. I too have done this for David, twice in fact.

I know David better than I know anyone, even myself. I know him inside out, head to toe, backwards and forwards. I know what he looks like, how much he weighs, what annoys him, what scares him. I know that he sits with his legs open, tends to shrug and isn't good at making eye contact. I know what flavour of ice cream he prefers and how he got the scar underneath his eyebrow. I know what haunts him. I know what his biggest regret is and I know what his goals are. I know what his path in life is and I know what he will achieve.

I know what you're thinking, Sinead, your character development is amazing! Yes, yes, thank you (*pause for applause*). I actually thought this myself (well amazing is probably a stretch, I'd probably replace it with "enough") and this is what I deluded myself into thinking over the past two years. Sure, don't I know David well enough? I don't need to develop him any further.

And then I started to write.

And then I started to recognise all the other characters in my book. Each of whom, I hadn't done a shred of development with. When I started to write about them, it honestly felt like a room full of strangers, staring expectantly at me. They don't know me and I sure as hell don't know them.

How can a plot make sense if the character has no agenda? No reason to act this way, feel this way, see things this way? How can it become real? Alive? How can it come off the page? How can it embed within the reader's mind? How can the reader be expected to turn the page and believe in the character's motives, actions, beliefs?

They can't.

Turns out, character development is important, crucial, vital to the storytelling process. I've learned (albeit the hard way) that plot falls flat without good characters and I don't mean good in the classic good vs bad way, I mean well developed, complex individuals with their own back story and personality. There are some (hopefully) good characters in my book who have done some horrific things.

So I've worked hard. I've spent the past few weeks developing my characters. I've made spider diagrams, lists and cue cards filled with personality traits, physical appearances and background stories for my one main character, three major characters and five minor characters. I've synced my character timelines with my plot timeline. It's been a slog and exhausting (repetitive) work but it's helped so much in two ways: firstly it's fleshed out my plot in ways that I could never have imagined; secondly, it's taught me to be more open minded and less stubborn about other viewpoints in writing.

"Character is plot, plot is character".

The lightbulb switches on.

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