I have a character who has a cameo in almost every story that I write. She sometimes changes her name and moves around a lot, but she is still the same person. I have spent a lot of time with her, and I still think she is keeping secrets from me. Me, who created her! Now that’s just plain rude. But I’m not surprised. That’s very like her. …Do I sound crazy yet? Do you feel the need to make sure that I know that my characters are, in fact, fictional? Of course, I do (Though I once saw a picture of someone who looked exactly like the character mentioned above, complete with accessories and bird. Life is weird, man). On the other hand, what does it mean to be real. It’s 11:30 AM in Orlando, Florida right now, because we decide it is. My character has dark hair because I decide she does. The time on the clock affects me because it tells me when to do things. The color of my characters’ hair affects me because it tells me what adjectives to use when describing her. Both of these things are intangible concepts, so is a fictional character any more fictional than the time of day? Must something be tangible to be truly real? I can’t walk into Starbucks and meet my character, but I can open a word document and talk to her, is this another plane of existence? A secondary form of reality? I don’t know the answer, but I know my characters are real in my head, because they never go away. The longer they are left untouched, the stronger they become.
I can’t write at all until I know who populates the story. This includes non-creative writing (whatever that means) like proposals, essays, white-papers—they they’re all stories intended to take a reader on a journey. For me, character development also includes the audience. Who are me and this group of yet-to-be-formed characters addressing? What do we have in common? Is there something we want from this audience? Do we want them to laugh at the funny parts, have the lightbulb of new learning pop on, take an action, change an emotional state? My experience with stories is that they are better when they are communally owned and evolve out of a shared experience of the characters. How can that happen? The audience isn’t here and doesn’t even know you usually. The characters are contrived, constructs, made-up creations who only exist in the minds of the teller and the audience. I think that is the sorcery of writing, or any form of storytelling. It is the evocation of a defined and bound space with rules of engagement from physics to nuances of culture, where all of these people meet and interact. It’s the original form of VR and the storyteller has the power to open the door and invite both the created and objectively real participants who will live together in the tale to meet each other. All of it is important—setting, plot, details, language. Skillfully evoked, the elements of story provided by the teller are the ground. What happens though, the journey of the tale, comes from what the characters tell me. If I write it unskillfully, someone always says “Hey, that’s not NOT how I would say that. Come to think of it, that’s not even what I THINK!” As long as I listen, the story may or may not get better, but it will be authentic and true for everyone involved.
Most of the stories I write are stories that teach people. I try to create a character who is enough like the learners (my audience) that they can relate to the character, but enough different that they question the character in their own mind. That way, they have just enough cognitive dissonance to want to pay attention, but not so much that it offends them, turns them off, or shuts them down. Oftentimes, the character I create knows something that the learners don’t know (yet), and he or she finds delicate ways (usually through actions he models) to present the new information so they, too, can be in the know.
I always base my fictional characters on real people in my life. Of course, I totally stereotype my friends or family members when I create these characters but using “real life people” to base my characters on helps me out when I write myself into a corner. When that happens, I think to myself…What would Cannon say in this situation? Or…If Jeanine were in the position, what would she do next? That way I know that what my character might say or do next would be based in reality and likely accepted by my audience of learners.
I can write anything. I spew real good (sic). Been doing it for a long time now across a variety of performance environments, media formats, and for all types of diverse audiences. I can also cook real good (sic, again). But that doesn’t mean I would serve everything I make in the kitchen to others. For me to write something that is truly worth the readers’ time, I have to care about WHY I am writing it as well as a passion for WHAT I am writing. Before there are any complex characters, interesting worlds within which they live, or riveting challenges they might face, I have to develop a reason to care about telling that story for myself … if it’s going to be one I’ll admit to writing after I’m done. Sometimes that happens at the point of inspiration and it remains in sync throughout the creation of the story. That’s awesome! It’s like being a pony express rider at full gallop mated to the back of the horse. No brainer. What’s harder, much harder, is when the writing still needs to get done, the story still needs to be told, but I could care less. For my own creative writing, that tells me to walk away – for now – but not forget about it or quit and come back to it later. For assignment writing – stories with a deadline and/or paycheck involved – that tells me I need to find a personal connection to why the world would be a better place if this story were to exist, be shared with others, and have an impact. Often times, that connection or purpose I create for myself is different from the one the client or boss has in mind, but it’s my own purpose that propels me forward with authentic urgency to create a story that matters. Once that spark is lit, emerging characters become friends, new worlds become familiar, and the only challenges to overcome are the ones that I bake into the story to pull the reader in deeper. So, the first character I ever work on when writing a story is myself.