Hello again! I am Lou Sylvre, and I’m rolling in here at the last minute, just having remembered that today is the day for my Love Bytes monthly post. So for my topic, I picked something I sometimes think about but don’t remember ever having said—how much an author should know about a character before they start writing their story—and how much they need to let readers in on. Of course, every author and reader is different, so this is only my viewpoint, from where I now stand. (Because that has changed over time, and may change again.)
Before I get into that, allow me to say thank you to everybody who read and/or commented last week, and a special thank you to those who followed the blog tour for Sunset at Pencarrow. Sharing a tour with a co-author was a new and delightful experience for me, a little like playing leap frog, a game famously depicted on the china owned by Armand and Albert Goldman in “The Birdcage.” (“La Cage aux Folle) Well, not quite the same, maybe….
So about characters
More years ago than I’m going to confess, I read a book by Rust Hills called, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Like most books on the writing craft that aren’t discouraging drivel (and there are lots of those), it has some good material and some bits I find annoying, pointless, or wrong. (Nevertheless, on the whole, if a new writer asks me for a recommendation, this is one of the few books I suggest.) More to the point for today’s blog, there’s a chapter in there entitled “Knowing a Character.”
The chapter itself is an interesting and possibly useful set of methods for knowing all about a character, most of which will never end up in the story. Most especially, it won’t end up in a short story. How much of the character’s history, habit, belief system, and minutia usually relates to the length of the story. A novel has a lot, a multi-novel series nearly everything. But how much ends up in the story doesn’t necessarily relate to how much an author needs to know when they start writing the tale.
Check out several “how-to” books on writing at your local library, and you’re sure to find more than one set of instructions for making a “character sheet,” “character card,” or “character bible.” Some will be pretty basic, some will go into great depth. Authors do use these. I know writers who spend weeks on filling out character sheets before they even put a single word of the story on the page. If that works for them, fine, but I don’t do it. (And of course I’m about to tell you why.)
Why I don’t do it
It spoils the fun! Of course, before I start writing I need to know a few things about the guy who’s been demanding I write his story, and usually I know those things without having to think about them, because he’s been talking to me, right? I probably know his name, but not always. If I don’t, I know what kind of name I need to find for him. I likely know enough about his appearance to decide his race. I know his attitude—yeah, that’s a big one. I probably know what he thinks he wants. I know the sound of his voice.
From there, I start writing, and the joy of it is in the discovery. When you meet a new friend, the more time you spend with them, the more you listen to them—not just their words but all the things they’re telling you with action and inaction, expression and gesture—the more you begin to truly know them. The same is true of a new enemy, right? Well, I might be a bit of a social wallflower, but when I work with characters, they are my friends (usually) and (necessarily at times) my enemies.
An example: When I met Luki Vasquez, he was a cold-hearted badass with a fuck-you attitude, and he wouldn’t stand still for his story. One day I “asked him” why he was the way he was. Of course, he didn’t want to tell me, because he’s that sort, but one thing about being the author, you can assert a sort of mind control over your characters from time to time. Eventually, he showed me a single event in his childhood, the first part of which appears in the prologue to Loving Luki Vasquez (and the rest later in the book) was his reluctant answer. Once I knew that, I saw him differently, and everything that makes him who he is and how he grows in the series flowed from that single harsh reality.
Oak Flats, Nebraska, 1982
A MUD-SPATTERED pickup in the front yard of a weathered house. Summer-gold hayfields rolling back farther than the eye could see. In the west, a sinking sun screened by a line of trees—cottonwoods and willows. Under those trees, a band of children just into their teens, whooping and laughing in that way that kids do in the summer when night is just on the edge of the next breath.
Luki ran faster than all the rest, and then looped back to taunt them. Excitement like electricity ran through him. Something about this day, this hour, this prelude to night, was special. “Maria,” he yelled. “I’ll race ya!”
It started a stampede, all seven of the boys and Maria, the one girl who always hung out with them, running as if they could fly, thrashing through brambles and over sticks and stones as if they couldn’t feel them. Out onto the Old Granary Road, onto the bridge, right over the rail and into the river, just as they’d done hundreds of times before.
Luki swam underwater for as long as he could hold his breath, which was longer than anyone, except maybe Maria. When he came up, laughing and spitting, and slicked his hair back out of his eyes, all of the other boys had gathered at the shore, whispering, or maybe arguing. Maria hadn’t even gone in, and now she was worming her way down the steep embankment from the road to the river.
The sun sank under the skyline, and the river turned dark, and Luki felt a chill run through him.
“Hey, Luki, c’mon over here, man.” It was Ronny Jemison, the boy that was a bit taller, a bit rougher, a bit meaner than any of the rest. Maybe the leader, if they had been a gang. “We’ve got something for you. C’mon.”
Ronny scared him when he was like this. Luki had seen the bully push Little Jimmy down the bank, yank Maria’s hair hard enough to put her on her knees, kill birds and frogs and rabbits—anything that lived—just to be killing. But, scared or not, Luki knew he had to choose: go and fight and maybe get hurt, or be deemed a coward and so get picked on—probably for the rest of his life.
So Luki went.
Before he quite made it safely to dry land, Ronny smacked him hard in the face with a balled up fist, and yelled one word, spit it at Luki as if it was made of acid and would flay him.
When Beck Justice, one half of the romantic pair in Falling Snow on Snow introduced himself to me, I knew he was a guitarist, and I knew he didn’t like the holidays. It wasn’t until I knew why he’d been homeless that I understood what that meant and why he so desperately needed a story.
I knew a bit more about Rusty Beaumont, the overly polite American visiting New Zealand in Sunset at Pencarrow before I started writing, because Anne and I had to work out more in advance so that we’d be on the same page. But you know what? Filling out those facts isn’t what built him into a character. That grew out of his interaction with Nate Dunn, the man who eventually shares his HEA. It was, in fact, another thing that made the co-author experience new and different, discovering my character by reflection.
I have a couple of questions for you blog readers—no contest this time, but I’d love to hear your thoughts: If you’re a writer, how do you create your characters? If you’re a reader, how much do you want the author to tell you about the character, and how soon? (Yes, of course—if you’re both, I’d love to hear both your answers.)
Thank you, Dani and Love Bytes for keeping me on the monthly author spot roster, and thank you, every reader. See you next month!