Creating Characters -- Making a Model

Last week I listened to this podcast from Writing Excuses, in which Corey Doctorow talks about the neuroscience of creating (and relating to) characters. Writing Excuses is a great podcast, but this is the first episode that really blew me away. It’s 15 minutes long, and I recommend you give it a listen if you write, or even if you just like to read fiction.

Doctorow talks about how, as we write, our subconscious begins creating a “model” of our characters. We already have “models” in our heads of the people we know in real life. That’s what allows us to accurately predict whether someone will like a certain gift, or how they will react to certain news, even if they aren’t there to confirm it. So the more we write about our characters, the better our model becomes, so that we can feel it when someone acts out of character — just as we might not believe it when someone tells a story about someone we know behaving in a way that contradicts our model of that person.

1D model-sheet

This podcast was a huge revelation to me. I am not someone who creates “character sketches” — I do not list my characters with their physical characteristics, their personality traits, or their likes and dislikes before I start to write. I hold it all in my head and uncover it as I write. I tend to write character-driven stories, but I sometimes second-guess how I “know” how a character will respond to a situation. And if I just keep doing what “feels right” as the scene unfolds, how do I know I’m being true to the character? And as I write more, will I run out of characters, so that they all really start seeming and acting alike?

I pondered this issue a lot while I was writing my NaNo novel, Ice Eternal. It is a sequel to Rumpled, but the point of view character is the miller’s daughter — Rumpled is written from Rumpelstiltskin’s point of view. Being within Emily’s point of view, I kept imagining her from a third-person perspective, asking myself whether this still “felt” like the same person we had seen through Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes in the first book. I eventually had to be content with the assumption that if it felt right, it was right.

This podcast reassured me that I can trust my instinct when it comes to characters, and that analyzing them too much with my conscious mind might actually hinder my process, especially during the first-draft stage. I think I can trust my beta readers, too — once in a while someone in my writer’s group will tell another member, “He doesn’t seem like the type who would do X.” This is good confirmation — you want the model you are building in your mind to match the model the reader is creating in his mind. (Corey says the act of writing is actually “transferring” a character model from your mind to someone else’s mind, which is pretty cool.)

This also explains why I am not a “plot-driven” writer — I can’t force my characters to do certain things for the sake of the plot. This can be tricky when writing retellings, when certain plot elements are expected. But now I can trust that if something feels “wrong” about the way a character acts, even if it’s something that I feel “needs” to happen in the story, it probably is wrong and I need to find a better way.

My husband and I are watching The 100 on Netflix. It drives us CRAZY because it’s totally plot driven, and the characters are absolute slaves to whatever needs to happen in the plot, to the point that their own personalities get totally pulverized in the process. It makes it hard to care about anyone on the show. Which makes it hard to care about the show. I’m curious about whether this is a shortcoming of just of the TV series, or whether it’s a carry-over from the book. Whichever it is, someone along the line should have listened to this podcast — and then the little voice in their writing head that screamed, “No!!!” before they mutilated their characters into fitting with the desired plot.