I’m going to state the obvious: writing a convincing character is hard. I mean, the entire project sounds ludicrous. How do you get a bunch of words on the page to coalesce in the mind of a reader as a complicated, coherent, full-bodied person with whom they want to go on a journey of several hundred pages? It’s magic of the most difficult kind.
From the writer’s (my) perspective, it’s just a matter of being patient. I have to wait for the character to share herself with me. Even when I know the plot (or think I do), I can’t write until a character starts speaking to me. I wait until some dialogue or a feeling or a description or a moment flickers in my mind. I hear the character in that moment and only then can I begin to write. And I have to trust that my rendering of this moment on the page manages to make that moment (or something like it) flicker in the mind of the reader.
But even if I manage to make a moment appear in the mind of a reader, that character still has to live in that moment. Like her, hate her, empathize with her, envy her—you have to want to be there with her. To do this, the rendering on my end must be even more precise.
I have been very lucky with my characters. Some of them—Marco in No Safety, Frizzle and Callie in Dogs—just speak through me. When I sit down to write them, they are just right there, ready to take me with them. It’s not that they don’t surprise me, but that writing them feels effortless. I just know them.
With most characters, I have a vague sense of who they are and through the process of writing them, get to know them inside and out. This usually means I have to go back and rewrite a lot of the beginning stuff with them because I didn’t know who they were at the time. But they want me to know them; it’s just a matter of giving them the time to share everything with me.
Others, though, are trickier. These are the ones who put on a show for me. They don’t want me to know them. Who the hell am I and why don’t I get the hell out of here? These characters pretend to be one thing, but it doesn’t feel right, or on the page they feel flimsy. They are putting up a façade and I have a hard time getting through it. Even when I know there’s something more there, I can’t seem to pin it down on the page.
I’m struggling with one of these at the moment. But I will get him. I can wait him out. Or, more to the point, write him out. If I chase him across enough pages, push him through more and more situations, challenge him to make bigger and bigger choices, he’ll trip up. He’ll do something or say something and I will get a peek at the real him and then—oh, baby, THEN, the magic will start to happen.