On Sunday I bought a bag of something called “freeze-dried coconut water.” Let that logic sink in for a minute.
I haven’t actually tried it yet, but I have read the package, and it seems to be the result of taking actual, watery coconut water and sucking away the water part until all that’s left is the essence of coconuttiness. A stupid, Whole Foodsy product—the kind of thing that my dad will be really mad that I used his credit card to pay for—but surely not the first time the siren song of convenience has melted the earwax of a spendthrift. People make complicated decisions, I contain multitudes, etc., etc.
But enough about me and my luxury food purchases. Let’s talk about characters.
I am, as of approximately Monday, a reformed reticent about character-creation exercises. I hatehatehate those character charts that demand you spit out everything from name to height and weight to favorite food and dream vacation spot. Filling those out elicits a creative joy somewhere between medical paperwork and a coloring book. It’s busywork! Unless she’s playing MASH on the school bus, no character is ever going to be called upon to recite a litany of her quirks and preferences. And if she does, you, the author, should really re-examine your strategy for crafting dialogue.
What I DID used to believe in is a mystical, unknowable mental alchemy of holistic character formation, a theory that now sounds even more ridiculous with a name like “holistic character creation.” Fortunately, my fledgling publishing career has not only taught me volumes of practical skills, but has also done some good descaling of my bright little eyes. That is to say: books—and all the multitudes they contain—are made, not begotten. Characters are devised, or built, or hewn with rough and angry chops, not granted fully-formed from on high. (I don’t think authors who talk about “discovering” their characters are wrong, per se, but I suspect it’s just their subconscious blushing and waving off admirers with an “oh my, you’re too kind.”)
This should be a relief! It was to me. Lately I feel like I’ve done enough bashing my head on a desk in frustration to make my skull crack open like an eggshell, and yet: no Athena. So now I’ve got a patchwork, slapdash, stopgap, bric-a-brac way of building my characters into real, imaginary people…with some prefab ingredients. It’s the literary equivalent of “cheater” recipes that rely heavily on canned biscuit dough and premixed taco spices, only a little more nutritious. Look:
Myers-Briggs types. Look them up—the theory is complicated and based on Jung but apparently sufficiently rigorous to get the stamp of approval from my old therapist, and I think she went to school for Understanding People. You answer some questions and get assigned a type (I am, personally, an INFP: Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving).
The method: figure out your character’s type, either by taking the test for/as them, or by looking at the profiles and guessing which one fits. Boom: instant list of virtues and flaws that work together as a sensical, cohesive whole.Work them into your external conflict and your story is just humming along, isn’t it? As it happens, the character I’ve been struggling to understand is my polar opposite: Extroverted Sensing Thinking Judging. It all makes sense! The more you know™!
The Sims. I’m sorry, shut up, whatever. We all play it, and we all know that after you go through the makeover-montage blitz of dressing up your Sims, the only interesting part of this game is what goes on in your head. You invent personalities! You get emotionally invested! You tell stories, admit it! Ain’t nothing in the rules that says a writer can’t make digital versions of their characters and watch them scurry around a virtual ant farm for a while.
Other people’s friends. Oh God, this method made me laugh so hard I’m not sure it even counts as a writing exercise. And it could happen to you!
Pick a friend of yours that didn’t go to the same high school as you and ask them to describe as many of their classmates as possible—not their friends, or anyone they knew that well, but what amounts to the secondary characters in their personal narrative. They’ll give you fun-sized mini-stories, one or two sentences that amounted to these strangers’ epithets during their formative young adulthood. What about the kid with the unfortunate nickname? What about the kid who interrogated everyone IN SONG about his missing pudding cup in 7th grade? What about the girl who let guys service her in the parking lot of Panera? What about the kid who was not only caught masturbating in class but was also—and I am not making this up—named JAMES EARL JONES?!
You’re bound to get a grab bag of high drama and utter mundanity, but that’s exactly what real high school is. And once you’ve stopped hiccuping with giggles, steal. Line up your cast of characters and dole out these ripped-from-the-yearbook quirks as you see fit.
Questionnaire. If you’re going to do an actual Q&A for your character, I think it should be the one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
What is your name?
What is your quest?
What is your favorite color?
What’s the land-speed velocity of an unladen African swallow?
These four questions actually cover most of what a person is about.
What they’re called (duh)
What they’re all about
Something about their taste or personal aesthetic
How they react when thrown into situations they don’t immediately understand—someone asking them an absurd question, say.
So…these are my character-mettle-testing supplies. They might not be the most efficient or sensical or “normal” ways of understanding the fake people you’re trying to make real people care about, but It Worked For Me! Delicious, piecemeal, semi-homemade characters, or my name isn’t Sandra Lee.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some coconut water to rehydrate.