Sunday, November 22, 2015

The People In My Head

Every now and then someone will ask me what a book I have written, or am working on, is about. I know all the book marketing sites tell you to prepare “elevator speeches”—brief descriptions that you can deliver when asked that question but I've never been any good at that. I try, but it always sounds too practiced and somewhat pretentious to me. Like I had a set speech prepared in case I was asked that question—which I did. Delivering an elevator speech would save me from certain reactions though.

The last time someone asked me about the book I am currently working on, this was a few days ago, I did my usual awkward, “Well, you see there's this guy and a long time ago this thing happened and...” The person I was talking to started laughing and said, “My lord, you talk about these characters like they're real people.” Really? They aren't???

I am writer of fiction, consequently I walk around every day with a head full of people. I've written half a dozen novels, and more than a few novellas and short stories. Some of them, the ones that are part of a series, use the same characters over and over, but the more I write about them, the more I know about them, and the more real they seem to me. Are other writers different? I don't know.

For my complex series—particularly the Marienstadt Stories and the Beacon Hill Chronicles—I've made use of Scrivener's function that lets you set up a card for each character. I even use color codes to track who belongs to which family. I find this very useful. I read once that J.K. Rowling writes out complete biographies for her characters. Perhaps that is why they seem so real and so natural.

As a reader, I am very, very aware of superficial characters and I lose interest in them quickly. I am less put-off by a stereotyped character that seems thoroughly believable—like someone I've actually met—than I am by superficial characters who might be unique but shallow. There's a lot of that around it seems. I've started several books lately that got tossed within a few chapters because I could not get a feel for who these people were and why I should care about them.

How does a writer avoid this? I think you have to live with your characters. You have to spend time thinking about them—where would they go for breakfast and what would they order? What kind of vehicle do they drive? Are they the sort of person who would spend a day shopping at a mall or would they have to be bound and gagged to go to a mall? Occasionally I have amused myself by taking the kinds of personality tests that we see so often on social media, pretending to be one of my characters—the outcome is often fascinating.

I am a writer and that means there are a lot of people in my head. Sometimes they are noisy and want attention and they keep me from participating in what is going on around me. And I love that about them. I love it when one of them says to me, “did I tell you about when I did this or that?” I want to hear their stories so I can build it into my stories. This means I am weird to a lot of people but I am okay with that.


Thanks for reading.

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