Characters must be drawn from life. I must experience them and the chaos they manifest, witness their actions and words and, more importantly, the fact that they think nothing of the consternation and astonishment they create. They live in their oblivion.
Their reality is not an esoteric choice, a façade, but a stark awareness that they could come around the corner at any time and might even have a gun. I aim to do the thinking for them, to make sense of them through that process. And it is through that they enhance what I know about myself.
Writing builds character. Or is it the other way around? The sad thing is that too many characters are caricatures that fulfil an odd addiction of an audience to do as predicted, to make everyone satisfied in knowing what is done next.
The core of real character is outside the details and patterns we project. Characters are inconsistent. They must be. They must be what is not expected. (And then not.) That is how we behave, what we need to understand our traumatized self.
As predictable as we might think people are, we aren’t. And if we are, that is death. A character needs to be nebulous. It is in that that a story spirals light.
One of my few strengths as a writer is dialogue. I rarely use an outline or definitive plan. Instead I focus on knowing the characters, watching them move and interact. Most important of all is knowing what their motivation is for the scene (why they there and what they want) as well as their background and relationship with the other(s).
I spend a great deal of time in thinking about how the scene starts, the exact lines and scene, and keep that moment in my head. It is almost like a moving snapshot – a gif as it were – that goes around and around, anxious to get out of the loop. And then I let them go and do what they want. At that point, it’s just a question of keeping up with what they say, basically transcribing as they go. They can get stuck, repeat themselves and run down blind alleys. It’s all a matter of trying to keep them on track.
The trick is to move ahead for as long as their voice stay strong. And when the momentum is gone, to step back a little and start again, like getting a car out of the muck, rock it back and forth until it’s back on track. Once the scene is done, it needs to be run through again a couple more times. Time is needed after that, a few days to do a proper edit, focusing on the structure and repetitions and that oh-so-impossible satisfying arc.
As advised by Darin Strauss at a writer’s conference, “Characters must be memorable, surprising and move within their essence. Most of all, they need to have their uniqueness made clear.”“When you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” (From J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye)