Charles Dickens could get away with starting a story with the birth of his protagonist. J.D. Salinger chose not to start there and called it ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’.
Now, before I am lynched, let me say that I am a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but David Copperfield was published in 1850. Catcher in the Rye, although very advanced for its time, was published in 1945. Today. we don’t write like either of these two authors.
This is the 21st century. What do we do?
- In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins tells us simply that it is the day of the reaping. She doesn’t explain it or tell us what it means.
- In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green jumps in by telling us seventeen-year-old Hazel is depressed because she has cancer. She is in a support group almost before we hit page two.
- In Room by Emma Donoghue, Jack wakes up on his fifth birthday. He is in Bed and switches on Lamp and has an interesting conversation with Ma. We know something is up and weird, but Emma strings us along. She tells us nothing.
- In The Good Luck of Right Now, Matthew Quick writes about Bartholomew Neil who is clearing out his deceased mother’s underwear drawer and finds a form letter from Richard Gere. The death of his mother and his one-sided correspondence with Mr Gere takes us on a journey that is at once sad, sweet and enchanting.
Now, this is not a post about inciting moments although each one is a brilliant example of a moment of action and change. This is in fact a post about character biographies.
Imagine if I started my post with: To begin my post with the beginning of my post, I record that I wrote (as I have been informed and believe) on a Sunday night at eight o’clock while everyone else was watching the Sunday night movie. (I ain’t no Dickens, that’s for sure.)
How do great modern authors create characters so complete that I am interested in them even though I only met them a page ago? They spend time creating characters.
All authors start with an idea. It could be plot first or character first. It doesn’t matter. But, if something happened, it happened to someone. And this is where my character biography begins. I start out with perhaps a paragraph of the things I know about this person. I add details as my first draft progresses.
I split this list into three (from Writers Write):
- The physical: What does he look like? I find a picture on the web or in a magazine and stick it up on the wall. Eye and hair colour. Tall or short, etc.
- The sociological: What were his circumstances growing up? Are appearances important and why? Is he rich or poor? Did his parents love him? Was his father a drunk, or was his mother the chairperson of the PTA, maybe both? Was he a bully?
- The psychological: As I write his psychological attributes become clearer. I might start out knowing he was very stubborn or ambitious or perhaps a coward. As I write more, I start figuring out why he is like that.
I write all of this down. I reread or rewrite this biography every few thousand words.
You have to know everything about him. To decide what is important for the story. You have to know more about him that you know (or admit to knowing) about yourself. That is how these great authors fall into a story with seemingly effortless brilliance. It is because they have filled in the back story; they know what is important for the reader and the story.
Indulge in your Copperfield crap. You need it, but remember that the reader doesn’t – at least not all of it.
If you are looking for a detailed character questionnaire, read: The Only Character Questionnaire You Need
by Mia Botha
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