Why You Don’t Need to Know Everything About Your Characters (Yet)

TJ Scott Silhouette Photography
TJ Scott Silhouette Photography

I have been creating stories basically my whole life. I say “creating” because, before I really knew how to write down the stories in my head, I did what any other kid my age would do: I made them up by acting them out. Barbies, Beanie Babies, dress-up: I have all these things to thank for getting me through the early years, until I knew enough about language and forming words to start writing those ideas down and saving them for later.

Yet still, after all this time, I’m amazed at how the same brain somehow manages to come up with different stories that are complete opposites of each other, in every way possible.

I have had the idea for my current novel in my head for awhile, and had to wait until this month to begin allowing it to play out on paper, because I was working on finishing up another story. I didn’t realize before embarking on this new literary journey how much I would end up depending on character development and dialogue to move the story along.

My last book was a YA sci-fi/adventure story, which meant it relied heavily on critical events and the surrounding environment as elements to give the story sustenance. I liked that change, because I usually write in the contemporary YA genre and hadn’t had to think quite so much about imaginary places and mechanisms of the future before.

It was a nice change. But it happened, it’s behind me, and honestly, I’m glad to be back writing in a genre I’m more comfortable in. It’s not that I don’t believe writers need to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones. I just, I guess, write a lot better in the genre I got my start under in the first place.

For some reason, though, I’m having quite a time adjusting to writing such a character-based story again. It takes place in a small town, both the alternating narrators are teenagers and they and everyone they know end up crossing paths with each other at different points as the story moves along. So basically, it’s my life seven years ago, except much more dramatic and none of the characters are based on me or my life (not exactly).

So why is it so hard to adjust? There are a few key events that the story keeps leading up to: a school play being the major one. But while there’s commentary from both narrators throughout and a few hints to some back story here and there, most of it is just talking. Sitting at lunch, talking. At a pizza place or coffee shop, talking. At first this worried me. Is it boring? Is this even exciting enough to keep me entertained? But somehow it is. Because somehow, all these characters have appeared that even I don’t know enough about, and with the conclusion of every scene, I want to know more about them.

Does that mean the reader would, theoretically, feel the same way? And, more importantly, does it mean I’m somehow doing this gradual character development thing right for once?

As much as I’m all for planning and outlining, I don’t really like the idea of detailed character sketches (writing out traits and facts about the characters in your stories). I think it’s important to know their general personality and how they might typically respond to certain events, but I don’t think it’s necessary to know every single detail about them.

I think, if you don’t know your characters as well as you want to, in a way, that’s a good thing. Building a story and creating characters is sort of like building a relationship with people who don’t exist. The longer you spend with them, the further you get into your story, the more they will reveal pieces of themselves to you. You might use all those pieces and you might not. It’s a journey.

I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy learning things about my characters as I go along. It makes me feel more connected, and it’s quite possible that if I can convey that ever-growing connection as I’m writing, my readers will sense that, and feel as though they’re making new friends, too.

Not that I ever expect anyone to read my stories. But it could happen.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of TJ Scott.

Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.

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One thought on “Why You Don’t Need to Know Everything About Your Characters (Yet)

  1. I very much agree. Main characters especially will start as an enigma for me. Then it’s my job to put them into situations where they can show me what they’re all about.

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