Character Questions

My friends surprised me last night by asking questions about the writing process. They were interested in how I come up with characters (and whether I ever used people that I know as the basis), and how I know when a book was finished.

Coming up with characters isn’t difficult. Some people do huge sketches of the characters before they start, detailing everything possible about the character. I don’t, although I’ve tried doing that, because that’s what I read a writer should do. I don’t do it before I start, but I will do a physical appearance at some point to keep matters aligned. I usually also develop their backstory so that I’m aware of who they are, and document that, again, to keep matters aligned, but I don’t usually do these things until after the character has been introduced.

The thing is, when I introduce the characters, I know their general personality and behavior patterns, whether they’ll be optimistic, sullen, joyful, belligerent, dismissive, etc. All of them are composites. I do lean heavily on people I know in to establish a guide about how the character will think and behave, but the characters don’t share a physical appearance or name with the real people. Usually, too, I use more than one acquaintance as the character’s foundation. One acquaintance will be the guidance for political views while another provides the guidance for religious views, and another will be the foundation for attitudes about eating and exercising, etc.

Like people, each character exists on multiple spectra regarding how they think and act. The spectra are about the facets of life. Everything we think about and do exists on their own spectra, in my mind. I’ve noticed how people behave while driving vice their behavior in personal relationships and work relationships, their politics, and so on. I’ll often notice differences about their behavior. Naturally, I notice the same about myself. I know what I think and then do, sometimes surprising myself by my whims and impulses. Sometimes I rationalize that action, and sometimes I’m clueless about why I thought one way and did another.

I’ll decide, in a fashion, how much they slide along their spectra. Again, this is a reflection of what I think I see in people. I think of these spectra as one hundred point sliding scales. Zero means people won’t deviate on their spectrum. As you can imagine, that’s somewhat rare. Most people known to be true will still have a slight variation, recognizing that adhering to absolutes are difficult. And although someone might be low on the scale in their personal relationships, meaning they can be trusted in confidence, they can be high on the scale in other relationships, such as work, and thus, be considered less trustworthy.

I didn’t share all this with them, of course. That would be TMI and cruel, in a sense. They don’t need to know it. But their questions prompted the thinking, so I felt the urge to write about it to help me understand it.

As far as when the novel is finished, I begin with a sense of an ending when I first start on the concept. As with the concept, the ending changes and shifts as it develops, becoming sharper and clearer as the concept becomes clarified and the story lines and character arcs develop substance. The ending I want will often strike hot and hard in the middle of the writing process. I have no problem writing that sketch-up, knowing that the words will be changed, and some of the substance will be modified. But it gives me a firmer goal.

Sometimes, I find that that ending is wrong, that I missed, because the story took unexpected swings. That’s not a worry, but another challenge to put on my writing hat and find a new ending. In any case, from the writing process, I find an understanding of an ending that satisfies me, the reader.

Of course, that’s just the beginning. After finishing writing the novel, I read, edit, and revise it, and while doing that, I’ll adjust the ending as I think needs to be done.

Will I change it based on others’ input? I can’t say yes or no. First, it depends on the input. Readers find different things in books, especially if it’s a complex work. That’s great. I have a hope about what they’ll take away from my novels when I write them, but it’s based on what I wanted to find as a reader. So, I bear in mind that I’m writing for myself first. If their input finds appeal in me, then I’ll work with it.

Enough. I understand what I think. Time to write like crazy, at least one more time.

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