In a recent post, I addressed information an author withholds about a character versus information the author hasn’t yet discovered about a character. I’ve recently been part of another reading in which the author didn’t have a ready answer for a particular character’s behavior. The response led me to believe the author needed to spend more time with the character, since the answer given sounded like speculation based on the situation, not the character’s motives for being in the situation.
Creating characters, especially those totally different than the author, presents many challenges and a learning curve is most likely needed for an author to become comfortable within the skin of such characters. I create many female characters and cannot draw upon vast self knowledge of how women navigate the world. I can be conscious of nuances in behavior I observe, but the motivation for such behavior is often a mystery to me. I’m fortunate to have friends upon whom I can call for guidance, but ultimately, the responsibility for bringing these characters to life falls on me.
In many cases, I rely on simply relating the behavior and leave the reasons up to speculation. While I may not know the motivations of people I observe, I am able to note how people respond and interact in their environment and this helps inform the characters I create. Often, developing one character can shed light on a related character.
In the original drafts of my play, Rebecca Too, Claire Belmonte was a minor supporting character cast to be a love interest for main character, Rebecca Asher. She was written as somewhat quirky, and so devastated by Rebecca’s death that she had not dated anyone in the five years since. To some extent, Rebecca had treated Claire like a doormat, given how she constantly cheated on Claire. At one point, to convince Claire that she really was Rebecca, Alyssa Caine whispers something that only Rebecca would have said. For the longest time, I had no idea what Alyssa said.
When I was writing Brian’s section in Mockingbird for Fables of the New South, I brought Claire in as Brian’s closest friend in Atlanta. I had already made the decision to feature Claire’s origin story, Phoenix in Fables, so adding her to the opening story allowed her to bookend the volume. Removed from the confines of being a supporting player for another character, Claire blossomed into a complex and intriguing character and a leading player in the expanding narrative I was creating. I realized that there’s no way she’d have put up with Rebecca’s nonsense.
Development of Claire as a major figure in the Atlanta Stories finally gave me the answer to what Alyssa says to her. Rebecca was in love with Claire but it was unrequited. Her favorite expression was “Whoever you need me to be; whatever you need me to do, I will gladly oblige for a moment of your love.” This is what Alyssa uses to convince Claire.
Developing the characters in my story collections and novels has finally caused me to understand a quote I heard from Henrik Ibsen about a character’s motivation in A Doll’s House. When a main character chooses to leave, Ibsen stated, that once he knew the character, he realized that the character had no choice but to leave. At the time I heard it, I believed that since the author was writing the work, the characters would behave in whatever manner the writer dictated. I now realize that the writer has to follow the behavior that’s been instilled in the character created.
Sometimes, in crafting a character, it’s best for an author to step aside and let the character speak for itself. The response will most likely be determined through a thorough examination of how the character presents him- or herself to the world and how the character has responded up to this point. Just as people have their methods for navigating the world individual characters will respond in like manner within the fictional reality crafted by an author. It’s a vital step in creating complex and believable characters who endure in the minds of readers long after the book or play is finished.