As someone who spends a lot of time talking to authors, there’s this clear divide in my life between people who are authors, and people who aren’t.
I suppose it’s like any job, really. There’s a lingo that you pick up, a common vernacular. Ideas and concepts that other people haven’t learned — they haven’t needed to learn it!
Some jobs have really cool lingo. Sometimes, I think half of my fascination with astronomy and space is the lingo that astronauts and cosmonauts get to throw around. I could spend hours just listening to their radio chatter.
Like astronauts and truckers and musicians, writers have their own secret language, their own bed of words and ideas that the uninitiated get to learn. Get a group of writers together and talking about writing, and I’m sure that we sound bat-shit crazy to any non-writers who are listening in.
Yes, I know, that’s because a disproportionately large number of us are bat-shit crazy. But that’s beside the point.
All of that is to say that my idea about discovering characters sounds strange to anyone who isn’t a writer. And, probably, to some writers as well.
We all know, on a subconscious level, that authors sit down, in front of a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, and they make shit up. They make it up whole cloth, out of the mess of electricity and meat that is their brains.
But that’s not helpful, that doesn’t explain how it happens. Not exactly. And so we come up with metaphors, extended figures of speech.
So, anyway, I know that I don’t discover my characters. I make them up.
But I don’t, not really.
My characters are real people.
When I first meet them, the only thing I know about them is their name. For any character that isn’t purely incidental (a waiter, a passerby, something like that), as soon as I know I need them, I know their name.
With only one major exception in all of my writing, their name is an inviolable part of them. Their name is who they are.
I know some people, especially newer writers, approach creating characters like they do a checklist. Well, I need a main character, so I’m going to call him Bob. And Bob needs a girlfriend, so I guess I’ll call her Sue. And Sue’s mother is going to be a part of this, so I guess I’m going to name her Sue Sr. until I can think up something better . . . and so on.
But my process of finding characters is different. I listen to my characters. I want to hear their story. And so, they tell me.
For the story I’m working on, my main character told me about his girlfriend, Katelyn, who had just been killed. And Katelyn’s best friend, Savannah, and his teacher, Dr. Rosch, and his Mom, Alexis. She’s a surgeon, by the way. And a combat veteran who now serves in the Army Reserves.
I don’t process it as I have to make up these things about these characters but rather What is this character telling me about their life and the people around him?
It’s treating a fictional character like a real person, with a story to tell.
And the more you write, the more you uncover. You’re continuing the conversation. You’re asking them more questions, and they’re giving you more answers.
Sometimes they’ll hesitate. Sometimes, they’ll lead you down some strange tangents. And the more you write, the more you’ll learn.
It’s like trying to see a stranger through the fog. And the only way to cut down on the haze is to write more. The more you write, the more you listen, the more you uncover. The more you get to see this person and the story that they’re trying to uncover.
You’re peeling back layers. It’s not easy. It’s not fast. It’s building a relationship. It’s learning to listen. And writing the story is like telling it back to them. Sometimes, they’ll stop you and correct you.
That’s how I learned, after 5–6 years, that Isabelle’s name was really Rachel.
I think she wishes her name was Isabelle. Much less Bible-y, much more exciting. But I think in time she’s learned to love her own name, too.
That, for me, is the joy of writing. I get to meet new people. People that nobody else has ever had the chance to meet. I get to help them tell their stories.
And, in doing that, I get to tell a little bit of my own, through theirs.
This writing is a strange magic, isn’t it?
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer, and the former query intern for Pam Andersen at D4EO literary. Follow along on his adventure, and receive his Query Letter, Deconstructed.