What’s the best way to get to know someone? Do you research them, or do you observe them?
I’ll leave you to think about that for a minute. In the meantime, let’s learn something about writing. There are two ways to write a great character. Unfortunately, neither of them works.
The first way is this: you compile a dossier about them. You write down their strengths and weaknesses. Their fears and their dreams. Their job, their favourite food, their height, weight, eye colour, hair colour, and the thing that happened to them when they were a kid that has changed the way they approach everything ever since.
Then you write a story about them, and struggle to find ways to naturally include all that information in your story. The character is climbing up a rock face, and you’re looking for a way to slip in the fact that she’s an insurance broker. (“As she reached for another handhold, she could almost feel her premiums going up . . .”)
We can summarise this method as: character first, plot second. For simplicity, let’s give it a cool, Robert Ludlum-ish name: The Dossier Strategy. (Kids, ask your grandparents who Robert Ludlum was – or just check out a list of his books.)
The other way to write a great character is the other way around. Plot first, character second. You just write a scene, knowing nothing about the people who inhabit it. Over time – hopefully – their actions gradually reveal to you the kind of person they are. For example, in the process of writing the climbing scene, you discover that the character enjoys rock climbing on the weekends. When she can’t quite reach the next handhold, you discover that she’s short. When her hair gets tangled in her carabiner, you discover that it’s curly and reddish brown. And so on. Let’s call this The Identity Revelation.
The trouble with this method is that firstly, it’s hard to write a scene featuring a character about whom you know nothing. Whenever it’s time to give them a choice, you find yourself stabbing blindly in the dark, just guessing what they might do. And if you somehow get to the end of your story despite this, you’re probably stuck with a character whose actions are maddeningly inconsistent, and who won’t feel real to any seasoned reader.
“So what’s your point, Jack? That writing is hard? I already knew that! What do I dooooo?!” Chill out, I’ll tell you.
You can’t write a great character. It’s impossible.
But you can edit a great character.
Pick whichever method you find easiest. The Dossier Strategy or The Identity Revelation, it doesn’t matter. (I’ve always found The Identity Revelation much easier – here’s a video of me using it – but I’m aware that’s a matter of personal taste.) Then, once you’ve struggled all the way to the end of you story, take a step back. Ask yourself, “OK, what do I know about this person? What journey have they been on?”
Once you’ve answered those two questions, you’re ready to go back and edit your story. To find all the bits where your vegetarian character bites into a steak, or your short, Polish rock climber later becomes a tall Austrian with a fear of heights. Make everything consistent. Show your story to some people, ask what they think, then edit it again.
This may take a while, and that’s fine. That’s good, in fact. The longer it takes, the more your character will feel like a real person. After all, the best way to get to know someone isn’t by researching or observing them. It’s by spending time with them.