So I’ll just start out by giving a brief summary of my summer. I’ve been doing two things mostly: watching TV and nannying.
I suppose in a way these two share a connection, though that may come as surprise. I suppose what both have allowed me to reflect a good deal on is the art of molding a person into what we know as a character.
Character creation is one of my all time favorite parts of writing. Most of the time when I develop a person for my writing I come to love them to a point of obsession. They’re like my children, my own creations I know better than anyone else ever could. I know their quirks, their likes, their dislikes, the way they look when they sleep, the food they’d gobble up in a heartbeat, the person that simply brings out the worst in them, their dreams and deepest desires. There’s something so beautiful in that. And that’s why I think some of this summer has been so fantastic.
I’ve done minimal reading. Something about this break has made me frightfully lazy. However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned anything about writing.
Though television perhaps may seem a bit of a lower standard in terms of studying writing, there is no denying a writer puts work into each and every episode that airs. And while actors certainly play a key role in helping give that character life, it’s the initial writer who first births the idea.
Unlike in novels or movies, viewers spend a large amount of time getting to know television characters, perhaps one of the reasons it is so important to develop the character to a greater extreme truly showing off their complexities and unique personalities. Most movies give you a 2 hour window into a character’s life. In that time, you might get to know them well, but so much time is devoted to plot that often characters can seem to blend back into the background creating the same generic feel of others in their genre. Not to say I don’t think there are amazing movie characters because there are films that can easily reduce me to tears (the fact that Pixar’s Up is the first one I think of leaves me a bit perplexed but nonetheless provides a good example).
Books are perhaps more in depth than movies often are, filling pages that take hours to read rather than a short movie time span. However, authors too sometimes must cut back on areas of character development. First person often gives a great insight into the mind of the protagonist and yet side characters sometimes end up becoming rather flat. Writing on this makes me think of my English professor’s little rhyme to help us remember character development techniques: what they think, what they do, what others think about them too! However, when the plot is over and done we don’t see the characters everyday normal lives to a great extent. We get perhaps a glimpse in an epilogue of he or she with children or a significant other making their way in the world, but it’s not the same as glimpsing multiple scenes of them raising kids, having fights with a partner, crying over the loss of a loved one.
Television provides a unique lens into the lives of its characters. You spend 45 minutes with them through each episode. And unless we’re talking about BBC most often, there are at least 20 of these episodes in a season, and the show could run for five or more years!
My mother got me started on Bones this year. I started in season 4 or something like that. And though I initially rebuffed the idea of becoming hooked on another television series, I soon found myself all too fascinated by Dr. Brennan and her frank and (sometimes too) honest approach to life, or Angela and how brilliantly she works computers, or Dr. Hodges who never fails to get excited by something gross. And yet part of what gives me such love for each and every one of these fictional people is that I get brief glimpses into their semi-mundane lives alongside the drama of the crime show. I see Cam struggling to mother a teenage daughter, or Sweets confused with his love life, or Brennan’s strained relationship with her father. And every episode, every season there’s a new real life struggle that I get to glimpse the character in to accompany the disgusting discovery of a new crime. And unlike in movies or books I often begin to get a sense that I truly know the character the way I might more as an author. For as writers we discover parts of the character’s normal life, we just don’t always get to include it in our novels.
Didn’t you say something about nannying? I’m sure I’ve lost a few readers and I apologize. And yes, I did. Nannying has been my second glimpse of creating characters and actually relates rather well to television. This is because my characters live more of an episodic lifestyle than one out of a novel or movie.
My kids’ all-time favorite game we play they call Orphanage. Children for whatever reason often seem a bit fascinated by orphans (perhaps the reason so many children’s stories include these individuals as protagonists). And so, we created a game of three orphans living in a home for other equally parentless children, all of whom find that the place they’re living is anything but ordinary.
There are probably fifteen to twenty other children in the orphanage. And I play all of them. The idea is I’ll slip out, put on a different hat depending if I’m a boy or girl and then step back in to act out my part as one of their compatriot orphans. Sometimes I’ll be having drama with one of the other kids in the place, other times I’ll bring news of something odd going on. We’ve had a bit of everything, from werewolves attacking, to petrified students with a basilisk on the lose (sorry JK Rowling) to strange spells, to aliens attacking. Most recently I’ve taken a page from BBC Sherlock’s book and have started making the children solve a mystery in order to save a fellow orphan’s life.
However, in the process of all this I’m weaving together characters that the children have come to know and love. And because I often play this game for four hours at a time, five days a week, for four or five weeks of the summer, for three years, the tales are often episodic in nature. There are new major plot conflicts, but also minor ones such as a girl rejecting a boy, or another orphan being adopted again, or one of them trying to escape unwanted attention. And in doing so the characters really begin to create a life of their own. You have quirky Nick the beat boxer who never fails to bring a smile to people’s faces as the somewhat goofy comic relief, or sweet motherly Anna who tries to run the orphanage as best she can when the adults fail, flirty Italian Antonio who never gives up no matter how often he gets shut down, or even obnoxious girly-girl Ivy who spends most of her time talking on the phone about her nails.
Both the kids and I have fallen in love with some of the characters. If we lose the list I keep of who’s who, there are always characters they are guaranteed to request, ones they’re sad over possibly losing, ones they fear for when threatened. Just the other day when the latest girl was threatened in order to get them to solve the little homemade treasure hunt puzzle I’d developed one of the kids commented, “No she’s our friend!”
And so this summer has reminded me all the more that making a good character involves truly knowing them. In a novel it can be a bit harder because you may have less time to let your audience fall in love, but I think a key part of character development is truly getting to know each and every person as an author, figuring out how they’d react in different scenarios, knowing more about their childhood background, understanding their interaction with others. My assumption of course is in doing this you help open up the reader to a truly unique person, one that almost seems to have life in spite of how fictional they might be.