As an author, it’s important to see the characters you create as real people. That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s true: if you don’t consider your characters as humans with feelings and thoughts and motivations, your readers won’t either. I don’t think this is a controversial opinion, but I also don’t think anyone with a normally functioning brain can pull it off. To write multiple people, you have to be multiple people. Forget the duality of man; embrace the infinity of identity.
Motives Maketh The Man
I’ve always thought of characters a motive machines. “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water,” as Kurt Vonnegut famously said. Thinking about what a character wants is the most reliable way to move a story forward, to anticipate what a character is going to do in a given situation. Often, when I get stuck in a zero draft, I take out a piece of paper and write down the names and wants of every character. Playing to those wants usually gets me through the next chapter or two.
I haven’t always been great with motivation; just compare the characters in Xronixle to Por Vida. I feel like incorporating Vonnegut’s advice helped greatly, but now I’ve come to a point where I don’t think his advice doesn’t go far enough.
You see, it’s not just about motive and wants. People are more than a simple collection of desires. To understand that, you simply have to look inward.
The Sliver People
For the longest time, I’ve always considered my characters “slivers” of myself. I take a strong desire or exaggerated feeling and cut it out and place it on a damp napkin until it sprouts a root. Then you drop that sliver into the story and watch it grow.
Knowing that almost all of my characters came from parts of my personality, and knowing that I’ve written five novels, I can’t help but feel like I’m a little crazy in the head. Phrases like identity disorder come to mind, but are quickly dismissed.
Thankfully, being dozens of distinct people isn’t the same as taking a single feeling and building a fictional personality around it.
As it turns out, I think most people are many people.
September wasn’t a great month. There was so much to do that “wants” didn’t really play into my daily life. Instead, I was pulled in multiple directions by different parts of my life: work, family, writing, etc. Each of those parts had different challenges to solve and at some level, required a different Daniel to solve them.
That got me thinking: am I a different person in different contexts?
There are things I say at home that I don’t say at work, and things I say at work that I don’t say when I’m visiting with neighbors. The more I look at it, the more I see identity as adaptive to the environment. We change who we are based on where we are and whose company we are in.
“Well, duh,” I hear you say.
Sure, we all kind of knew that already, but for authors who haven’t considered that their characters’ personalities, moods, wants, and motives are adaptive, this could be a revelation. Characters that speak Spanish around their family maybe try to “act White” in mixed company. Characters that put on a brave face around women may become passive in the company of males.
Because really, if characters are people, then they should have multiple identities too, one for every context. And those identities should come out in the story, should work in service of the plot, and should show your characters to be the malleable, adaptive, and ill-defined people we really are.
Pic of the Day
My greatest accomplishment as a father was in providing an awesome street for my son to grow up on. Most nights, you can find children and parents milling around in driveways, talking cars, watching out for cars, and screaming, “Car!” He’s one of the youngest on the block, but every day that we’re out there, I’m thankful he has a group of neighborhood friends to grow into.
State of the Verse
I’m on chapter 47 of Draft 3 -> 4. Edits are coming slowly, as there is very little time for my lifelong passion. I’ve been thinking a lot about the next book, about authoritarian societies plagued by corruption and pollution and poverty… for obvious reasons. Doesn’t fit the Vinestead Universe that well, but maybe it could just be a backdrop. The smog didn’t seem so bad in Los Angeles in Por Vida, though most people were driving electric cars.
Unfortunately, a 2018 release date for Hybrid Mechanics is no longer realistic.