Character Building: Getting to Know You

🎵Getting to know you, getting to know all about you
🎵Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me

Whenever those sunny lyrics from The King and I come into my head, I usually treat them as a sappy joke. But lately I’ve been humming them with more seriousness, because they describe perfectly the current stage of my writing. I’m getting to know my new characters, getting to like them—and to hope they like me, enough to share their hopes and fears and what really gets them out of bed each morning.

getting to know you the king and I

Who are you? I ask each one, when their shadowy figures first tap on my imagination’s shoulder. Where did you come from? What makes you tick? And of course, what do you look like? (Physical attributes might be the least important, but they’re also the easiest starting point.)

For me, the only way to answer all these questions is to start writing—which is the only way to figure out what this next book will actually be about. As soon as I start thinking about theme, or context, or The End, my imagination goes quiet; I have to feel my way into each story through its characters. Before I figure out the What and Why, I need to understand the Who.

Getting to know my imaginary friends is surprisingly similar to the real thing, except for one aspect: it doesn’t require any actual human interaction. Through a completely unscientific combination of woolgathering and butt-in-chair, I write scenes that are really character sketches. Slowly but surely, I learn who these people are by eavesdropping as they move around their world, noting “facts” as I discover them: She’s got raccoon-eyes from her big sunglasses. He has a scar on his left temple. It will take months—or years—before I know which, if any, of those details really matters to the story.

🎵Getting to know you
🎵Putting it my way—but nicely

I have to keep reminding myself that, at this stage, it’s okay to write down words that might not be driving the plot forward—because I don’t yet know where we’re headed. The only way to learn what’s essential and what’s trivial is to give my characters the room and opportunity to dance or cry or lash out, trusting them to eventually lead us in the right direction—toward whatever the hell it is I’m actually writing about.

When I focus on getting to know my fictional friends, words flow onto the page mostly unhampered by doubt or self-editing. If I try to figure out What Happens Next, it’s like overhearing a fun party from down the hall; a mash of voices and laughter, and no idea what all the noise is about.

I like to think this process will become easier with each book, but except for understanding that it’s just a phase (this too shall pass), it remains stubbornly inefficient. Just because I’m starting my fifth novel doesn’t mean I know any better how this one will end. So I remind myself that the previous books all began the same way; blindly following a spark of curiosity about a new character, even though I didn’t have any idea where they were taking me or what was important to their story.

Those King and I lyrics may sound sickly sweet to my 21st century ears, but they’re a great reminder of the best way I know to figure out what happens next. So sing along with me:

🎵Getting to know you
🎵Getting to know all about you…

Need a melody refresher? Watch the scene on YouTube

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One Reply to “Character Building: Getting to Know You”

  1. Hi Carol!
    Love your thoughts about writing….that it’s a process that can’t be rushed. That you have to wrestle with learning about your characters as they reveal themselves to you.

    This is great encouragement for my 6th grader! He wants to just sit and write, once and be done. No proofreading, little editing, let spellcheck do the hard work. How do I convey that words need to be wrestled with? That writing takes time and that there is no one perfect way to write an essay? We’re struggling with grammar a bit too. Any wise words from a veteran wool-gatherer would be appreciated! Happy Thanksgiving!

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