Character Construction for Long-form Fiction

Yesterday, I sat down at my laptop at roughly nine in the morning, and with the exception of periodic washroom breaks, hummus and toast at lunchtime and take-out Thai for dinner, I stayed behind my laptop until nearly midnight. In the interim, I came within spitting distance of the Chapter 1 rewrite, which I finished this morning. More importantly though, I redefined the two POV characters and the primary non-POV character in my novel. In doing so, I realized what does and does not work for me with regard to character construction in a novel, and I thought I'd share that information with you.

What Doesn't Work

Doing Nothing

While I've been able to successfully create short-story characters on the fly, I can't do the same for longer works of fiction. Novel characters, by necessity, have wider character arcs, more room to be and grow. Therefore, they need more substance to begin with. In the last incarnation of Twilight of the World Sea People, I knew exactly who Jakyri was, but I wasn't so sure about Litha, and it showed. When I was writing in Jakyri's POV, I sped through the work. When I wrote in Litha's POV, however, it was harder to know what she might do, and why. It occurs to me that I knew Jakyri better because I had written more of her back story into the plot itself early on. Litha was an enigma because I hadn't gotten to her back story yet.

Interestingly, it's Jakyri's POV that has to be rewritten, which means every other chapter and the bits of Litha's POV that correspond with them. I think perhaps it was my familiarity with Jakyri that made me aware of the problem in the first place.

Attribute Lists

I've seen a number of recommendations for attribute lists; hair color, eye color, age, employment, favorite foods, etc. I think these are fine for Internet memes, but I doubt their efficacy for the creation of well-rounded novel characters. Attribute lists are superficial. They might tell you enough to get past a first date, but they won't get you into bed with the people you're creating. What you need to know are their hopes and heartaches, their dreams and disappointments. Those are the things from which their character arc will spring, so they're the things that need to be well-defined.

What Does Work

Short Histories

As previously mentioned, I wrote three short histories last night. Jakyri's and Litha's were about 650 words each and Ander's was about 300 words. In them, I told the stories of their childhoods, their early adulthoods and their lives immediately preceding the first chapter of the novel. In doing so, I was able to step away from the easy arcs, like 'orphaned child grows up on the street and becomes a driven adult' or 'confused child discovers his sexual orientation is healthy and then grows to productive maturity'. We know these people so well from having seen them before in fiction that there's no mystery about what becomes of them in a novel. In other words, they're little better than stock characters, those two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that occupy the unimportant corners of the literary landscape. Neither Jakyri nor Litha were ever that predictable, but it was important that they not be ambiguous either, as Litha had been before. In fleshing out their histories, I was able to flesh out their motivations as well, and I know them better now than I ever did before.

So, for me, no character building equals ambiguous characters, attribute lists equal superficial characters and short histories equal well-rounded characters, or at least the possibility for well-rounded characters. As with anything, your mileage may vary. This is, of course, a gloss of the topic; Holly Lisle wrote an interesting piece on character creation this morning that takes the matter into deeper territory. You might read it as a follow-up to this article; she knows her stuff.