Fatherhood [fah-ther-hood] (n): The delicate balance between making a child into the person he is going to be and letting the child decide who he is going to be.
You won’t find that at dictionary.com. But as my first child continues to grow and my second child has just announced his/her plans for imminent arrival, it’s what I’ve decided ought to be the definition.
On the one hand, when I tell my son that we aren’t going to watch TV, and he plants his feet, balls his little fists, and screams into my face, I engage in the process of making him into the person he’s going to be. If he remains as he is, it will invite complications later on.
On the other hand, when breakfast is over and I let him decide what he wants to do next, I engage in the process of letting him decide who he’s going to be. His decision between running around in the back yard and banging on the coffee table because it sounds really cool will have lifelong consequences as surely as a butterfly beats its wings.
And so it is when creating your main character.
Sure, you’re going to make big decisions about your character that she has no say in. But here’s a truth to parenting as much as writing: the more you decide the tiny details of someone else’s life, the more that person becomes only a caricature of you.
There’s an author out there. Really famous one, too. I read a lot of his books. But lately, I’ll be frank, I’ve been getting annoyed. The protagonist is always the same: young male, nerdy and awkward but snarky, and he always seems to know the right answers and he really knows how to manipulate people. Honestly, it’s most of his books.
The worst part is that I’ve read enough of his non-fiction stuff to know that that’s kind of how he is. Not young, no, but male, nerdy and awkward and snarky and he thinks he knows all the right answers. He essentially makes all of his protagonists young versions of him.
So I stop caring about his protagonists. I get tired of reading about the same people over and over again. I like his style and his plots. I want to be a fan. But it’s really hard when it seems like all he’s doing is subconsciously fulfilling all his deepest fantasies.
You can do better. If you make your characters unique individuals, trust me, you’ll keep your oeuvre much more enjoyable.
Now, Thomas, it’s one thing to say that. But how do you let your character—a fake person—make decisions?
It all starts with prewriting. Courtney can tell you more about this, and she does every Monday. The process is crucial for making basic decisions about your characters. John Grisham does this with every novel—with great results, I might add.
Then, once you’ve done the work of prewriting, write short scenes with your characters. Not the novel, not yet, but episodes, certainly. Prequels. Let your intuition guide you. Don’t pause to plan. Just throw circumstances at them and write down the first actions and dialogue that come into your head.
Still uncertain? Don’t worry. I’m going to walk you through it. With our philosophy of character creation firmly established, you and I are going to make a baby.
Male or female? As a male, I can create male characters more quickly, so let’s say male. Age? Adolescence and young adulthood are the most dynamic periods of a person’s life, so let’s say 17. Milieu? Building a fantasy world or doing historical research come with their own processes, so let’s say modern.
What about his personality? The world has expectations for him; which ones does he accept and which ones does he rebel against? And which of those were conscious decisions, and which of them were decisions that were made for him by genetics, epigenetics, or upbringing?
I can, and will, put together a fuller profile of this character later, but since space is at a premium right now, we’ll just establish a few basics. He’s more athletic than average. He’s of moderate intelligence. He lives with his father but not his mother.
But every character needs a twist. Just for the fun of it, let’s say he has the pure-O variety of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, wherein he is plagued by obsessive thoughts that do not manifest themselves in compulsive actions.
I’m going to take a moment to think through how a real teenager would develop under these conditions.
And now I’m going to throw stuff at him and see how he responds.
“That’ll be $3.78,” the girl at the Starbucks counter said through her plastic smile.
Nathan pictured a demon with a rusty pair of pliers shoving her back against the wall and pulling out her teeth one by one.
He pulled a five out of his wallet. “Keep it.”
The girl’s smile turned up at the corners, turned a little more real. “Thanks.”
Nathan took the coffee. “Thank you.”
What do we know so far? Because Nathan gave no outward reaction to his thought, we suspect that this is something he’s experienced before and has practice containing. We also know, through the description of the girl’s smile, that he’s observant of people—I’m using a limited point of view, so I’m only describing what he’s noticing.
Nathan walked back to the armchair in the corner, his heart pounding, the sound of the barista’s screams, her muffled pleas for mercy, blazing through his mind. He breathed deep the steam from his coffee, letting it wash the filth and sin away.
He sat down and took a sip. This Starbucks tended to put more cinnamon in his coffee than they were supposed to. He much preferred that to the one on Brooks Street, where they tended to make things to spec.
His cell phone buzzed.
We all go to hell toothless, he thought.
Dad’s picture graced the screen of the phone. Nathan answered.
“I don’t like farting when I run.”
“They’re good for you. Full of protein.”
“So is chicken. I don’t want beans.”
“Fine. I’ll eat the beans. You can get constipated.”
Nathan glanced up at the counter. The barista was giving him a coy look. She met his gaze with breathless hesitation, then turned away to help a customer.
“Deal.” He ended the call.
Nathan stood and left. She seemed like his type. That would make it hurt even worse when she left him.
I didn’t mean for Nathan to be particular about food. And he probably only really likes cinnamon because I like cinnamon, so that’s a little leakage there.
But the biggest decision he had to make was about the barista. He’s a hot-blooded teenaged boy. But he’s plagued by insistent thoughts of blasphemy and violence, and we know, though the reader doesn’t yet, that his mom’s not in the picture, suggesting another source of anxiety.
I wanted him to go after the girl. She’s really cute. But he knows he has too much baggage. So he made the choice a real person like him would make, not the choice that I, the author, wanted.
That’s what I meant by letting him make his own choices. The more you know about how people work, the more you can have your characters act like real people and not like tools of your plot.
I’m going to write a little more about him on my own, and next week we can decide what kinds of people surround him.
This article took eight read-throughs.