Letting my characters be my characters

I have a fear of letting my characters be my characters.

While art that works is art that works, and it’s often difficult to quanitify exactly what makes one piece compelling while another one isn’t, there are generally some guidelines to good storytelling. Drama requires conflict. Stakes should be high. There must be an arc or journey of some kind; things that do not change are, if not dead, extremely dull. The absense of these things tends to leave stories hard to emotionally invest in, or else feel stagnant, boring, and unworthy of attention. Their absense also tends to be a likely mistake made by novice writers. Most writers find it easier to come up with interesting characters, and make the error of assuming because they’re interesting people anything about them will be automatically engaging.

I personally care a lot about what happens in a story. Both what plot events occur and what character development happens. And character development is NOT, contrary to popular belief, simply establishing what the character is like. It’s MOVEMENT, it’s growth and change, it’s the crashing of their thesis with the antithesis of the circumstances around them to create a new synthesis.

When I try to write without a plot, or at least a character journey in mind, I find myself feeling very… guilty is the only word I can come up with. Like I’m making a fan fic where the character sit around and talk about their already-obvious feelings in very on-the-nose terms and nobody grows and nothing happens, not even in the sense of character-arc-progresses or relationship-is-changed sense. It feels self-indulgent rather than creative; almost masturbatory, even– well, it might have been fun for me as the writer, but there’s nothing for anyone else to get out of it. I had that feeling in the extreme when I was writing the “Being Married” scene.

The problem with this is, well, you NEED to know who the characters are before you can appreciate the way they grow and change. You can enjoy the distance of the journey if you can see how far they come. And more and more, it’s seeming that because I focus so much on that journey I don’t always make clear to my audience who my characters are before I ask them to come along for how they change.

I flatter myself that it’s not ENTIRELY my particular weakness. Drama needs to go by FAST; people simply cannot be expected to sit through something that’s too long, or that takes too much time to get really going. And I am positive it’s not that my characters are not fully fleshed out; it’s an issue of what comes across, not what is or isn’t there. But I think I need to practice taking more time allowing characters to just be themselves, without necessarily worrying about the progress of the plot. My teacher and friend Mark Edwards suggested recently practicing that, and given that I have to fix a couple of things (Tailor at Loring’s End, Puzzle House Blues) for this very problem, it’s probably a good idea. After all, if I’ve done my job right, people will like my characters, and actually want to spent a little time with them in that manner.

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