Friday, 7 September 2012

When it's Better Not to Know

How much should you know about your own characters? On the face of it, that seems like a ridiculous question – as a writer you are expected to have control of your whole literary universe: plot, characters, everything. How-to-write books will give you helpful sheets to fill in, where you list everything from a character's hair colour to how many sugars they like in their tea. But do you really need to know? After all, it isn't as if you'll ever have to apply in the guise of your character for an iTunes account (genuine sample security question: "In which city were you first kissed?")

The reason I ask, is because I'm having a problem with a character in my own work-in-progress at the moment. While I've got into the head of the protagonist very quickly, I find this other significant character quite hard to get a handle on. Just the other day, he did something in a scene that both surprised the other characters and delighted me, and I wonder if I would have taken so much pleasure in his actions if I'd planned them in minute detail. I know (roughly) what he wants to do, but have very little idea why. Should I sit down and work that out?

I think not, because it strikes me that the joy of discovery is a key thing that keeps me writing. In the last book, I was discovering a world, in this one I am discovering a character. The occluded backstory of this character and the deeper reasons for his actions already feel to me like something that could span a series of books, so perhaps I'm actually protecting my future interest by not digging too deep. It feels too early for me to make a decision on why he is the way he is, and I want to observe him in many different situations (as a psychologist would) to find the truth behind his actions.

Of course, when I psychoanalyse my characters it's a reflexive process, because I'm actually analysing myself. It's already clear to me that this character represents another example of an archetype that appears in all of my novels to date – the anarchic individual who upsets the protagonist's world through their disregard for social convention. At a practical level, this character type serves to provide social comedy and to take the plot in unexpected directions. But what does it say about me at a deeper level? Do I secretly wish for someone to come into my carefully ordered world and turn the whole thing upside down? Or is it more about good structure, providing the kind of inciting event that Robert McKee insists is needed to put the protagonist's world out of balance, therefore giving the main character a strong motivation to fix it?

It seems that the more we write, the more we learn about ourselves, unconscious truths that can only be released by indulging our right brain in creative activity. Just as it's often a bad idea to comprehensively plot a book before you write it, so it can be a mistake to try to mould a character to fit your conscious expectation rather than your unconscious needs. So I say to myself: stop trying to know everything, embrace the mystery and trust your subconscious to fill in the blanks along the way. After all, in life, I find people who claim to know everything are rather boring to be around. And who wants to be someone like that?



  1. I agree. It's a bit like a job interview, the CV might tell you some interesting things but the person you meet will probably be completely different.

  2. I think you only know your character when you can say with conviction - 'He wouldn't do that,' or 'That really doesn't sound like him.' I love David Almond's approach, he has a queue of characters looking over his shoulder waiting to be written about. They tell him who they are and what their stories are. That's why he's so brilliant - he listens to them.

  3. I never really plan my characters, it's much more fun to watch them grow on the page. Never really thought bout what they say about me...slightly worried now!

  4. I enjoyed your article. I never plan my characters - they just emerge and I agree with Maureen about what my characters would and wouldn't do.

  5. I don't find it works to plan out every aspect of a character in a methodical way. It doesn't lead to someone who feels real to me.

    But sometimes I do need to think about the nuts and bolts of what a character is like for a bit, until I reach a point where I just start to get a more general sense of 'what they are like.' Sometimes this takes a frustratingly long time!

    I don't like those worksheets you are supposed to fill in with every detail about your character's life. I just don't find it helpful.