While story and character ideas often pop into my head, usually at the most inopportune moments, they never arrive complete. They are just images and half-formed ideas, things I have to think about for a while before they are ready for me to begin sharing them with the world. This is one of the best parts of the creative process for me, as well as one of the hardest.
Building characters from the ground up is difficult for me, but not in the way that you would think. Character sheets are very helpful and I use them often (see here), at least for my main characters. They help me work out all the details about my characters lives, what they look like, and what their goals are. That’s the easy part. The hard part for me is knowing that each decision I make about their past will affect how they respond in the story, so I have to choose carefully.
Characters in a story are just like people, at least in the respect that their past makes them who they are.
We are like velcro. Little bits of our past stick to us, giving us a new shape. We pick up habits, develop ideas, form beliefs, all because of the people we knew and the experiences we had. Baggage, if you will. Those things tend to leave a mark, and those marks change us. They change how we perceive things, and how we respond to them.
The characters I create are exactly the same. That’s where the difficulty arises. When I’m writing, I have an idea of where the story is going and how the characters will behave, change, and grow. If I choose their past incorrectly, then their responses to situations will seem contrived and forced as I try to make them fit into the story I have planned. I have let these choices stand a few times, but then I find the story going into a completely different direction than I originally envisioned. That can turn out good and make the story better, but I’ve only had that happen once.
I remember reading books as a child where you could choose your own ending. Each choice you made gave you a different adventure, a different ending. It’s the same concept. Every choice you make for your characters brings them to a different place, their velcro holding on to the bits of their past that mark the journey they have taken to get there.
I need another cup of coffee. I have a lot of creating to do. Adding and removing baggage to my fictional characters is a long process.