When was the last time you were in a crowded mall? Or a line at Starbucks? Or perhaps returning books to the library? Or walking past a tattoo parlor?
We see an endless parade of people in our everyday lives. Tall, short, fair, dark, men, women, and the people we can’t seem to pigeonhole. We may only catch them from the corner of our eye, or we may interact with them as they hand us coffee or help find a shirt. We have no way of integrating them into our reality further than taking back change or gazing at their fine attire and wishing we had the same thing. Still, our brain absorbs them and then integrates them into a people database.
Now, some people will make up a character out of whole cloth, never once dipping into the stored palette of human beings. At least, that’s what they say, but the subconscious is a big and duplicitous place to play, and we are rarely aware we’re accessing it.
This is also only half the equation. What a character looks like is important, but the truth is whatever you describe, the reader is going to wrap their own subconscious around the words anyway. What’s important, then, is who a character is.
When a writer first approaches a story, they may not have a detailed backstory for their main character. Or, they may have spent hours writing up preliminary story – where the character was born, who the parents were, if there were siblings, did they grow up in a religious family, did they join the military. Each of these answers helps to dial in on what makes a character a character. If a character was fond of their siblings, it may help them bond to their plucky sidekick later on. If they joined the military, how was their views on violence changed? These are the alchemical compounds that make Johnny Protagonist.
That is the logical way to go about writing a character, and a lot of writers make effective stories being this detailed. I, on the other hand, have a completely different method, but what’s worse is I can’t adequately describe it. What I will say is that quite often characters appear to me with witty comments to particular situations that I think are funny. Then I let myself flow, and write scenarios that enter my head. The character is a part of the story just as much as the setting or the structure. I don’t analyze who they are, I figure out who they are as I put them into scenes they have to survive.
My way, unfortunately, is what I would term “The long way around.” When I realize I’ve written something off character, I often have to backtrack whole chapters to repair the damage. It creates a LOT of revision. My way is also chaotic, unpredictable, and a hell of a lot of fun. I wouldn’t recommend it over the plotter’s camp, but I think that a lot of storytellers are intuitive storytellers who can’t explain where the stories come from, they just have to get them out. These are my people, and we may make extra work for ourselves but we have a lot of fun.
I’m sure there are other ways of making characters as well, and would invite anyone to share their system with me in the comments. When it comes to storytelling, there’s never one right answer.