It’s an odd thing, but at this point in my career (standing on forty novels, OMG) I find that building a character is simultaneously the easiest thing in the word, and the toughest. Easy, because I’ve been doing this long enough to understand the components I think I need to have for a good character: a good backstory, something the character wants, something the character fears, and consistent attitudes and style. Those are quite basic, but they help me get started, and the characters can develop naturally from that point.
Sometimes it’s the simple things, like this: I have a character I’m toying with right now who has an almost pathological attachment to a particular leather jacket. He and the jacket have history—it belonged to his best friend who died, and the friend’s mother gave it to him because she knew it would mean something to him. The jacket’s too big. It’s too heavy for the climate he lives in. But he wears it like a second skin. It’s an odd thing, but at this point in my career (standing on forty novels, OMG) I find that building a character is simultaneously the easiest thing in the word, and the toughest. Easy, because I’ve been doing this long enough to understand the components I think I need to have for a good character: a good backstory, something the character wants, something the character fears, and consistent attitudes and style. Those are quite basic, but they help me get started, and the characters can develop naturally from that point.
So what happens when someone takes that jacket from him?
That character trait interweaves with plot and theme … plot, in terms of what happens next, and theme, in terms of what does it all mean. The character has his own inner life in my head—all his grief at losing his friend, his anger, his guilt (because he still thinks the friend’s suicide is his fault). And it all comes from one single article of clothing.
That’s what I mean when I say it can be easy.
When I say that it can also be hard, it’s because you have to avoid writing the same characters over and over. That’s very hard, because you have certain tics as a writer that you may not be fully aware of having in your work—and that only emerge when you review what you’ve done before. For instance: I like writing quirky characters in isolated towns. I have to be careful that those characters don’t start sounding the same, share too much in terms of basic natures, etc. Or names. They shouldn’t have the same names. (Hey, you try remembering the names of every character in forty novels. It ain’t easy.)
There’s also the challenge of stepping outside your comfort zone from a cultural perspective. We’re told “write what you know,” and that’s true, because it helps you learn the craft with a bit of a safety zone. At a certain point, though, you should be able to write about things you don’t know, including cultural situations and settings you aren’t familiar with writing. Can you screw it up? YES. MASSIVELY. (Have I? Of course. MASSIVELY.) But that isn’t a good excuse not to push yourself to new places. Otherwise, just sticking to your tried-and-true cultural tropes will make you look stuck and clueless. Here’s a pro tip, though: when you decide you need to make that jump, immerse yourself in the culture you’re jumping into. That doesn’t mean the imported version of the culture, either; that means doing your research diligently, and if at all possible sitting down with people from that culture and discussing what you’re doing. Having cultural beta readers is also a great idea.
In creating the characters for Prince of Shadows, my newest book (don’t you love that transition? EXPERTLY DONE, CAINE) I had to content myself with historical research, since it’s pretty difficult to get William Shakespeare’s opinion on what I was doing. In doing that research, I realized that the defining trait of every character had to be how they dealt with the restrictions imposed on their lives … because in that era, in that environment, there wasn’t freedom to choose your fate in the way that modern society understands it. People lived within their lines, at least in public; some accepted it easily, some hated it all, some seized the chance to amass power and influence. Each of the characters in Prince of Shadows had to decide, when faced with the boundaries of their freedom, what to do about it, and that was an interesting exercise in creating quite distinct characters based on those choices.
Got character questions? I’d love to discuss!
See you next time when we talk about plot. Or plot about plot. Or something.
Bio: Rachel Caine is the author of more than forty novels, including the internationally bestselling Morganville Vampires series in YA, as well as the popular Weather Warden, Outcast Season and Revivalist series in adult urban fantasy. Her newest release, PRINCE OF SHADOWS, debuted February 4, 2014.