The writing process 2

The writing process
The writing process: creating a character
(pic by Zane Lee on Unsplash)

With the start of the WriteOnline Writing Fiction course next week, I thought it a good idea to talk about an essential aspect of the writing process: characters.

We all know that characters make novels: think, Oliver Twist, Mrs Dalloway, Molly Bloom, John Rebus, Pilgermann, Sethe, Piggy. We remember those novels by their characters; possibly because of those characters.

But what comes first: the character or the story?

It’s all about the story

During a discussion with Deon Meyer on WriteOnline’s Hangout at the end of February, we touched on the writing process. Deon was adamant that story is paramount in that process and characters are part of the story, in other words, fitted into it.

I’ve heard him say before that sometimes a story is right for one character but not for another. In other words, his most well known character, Bennie Griessel, doesn’t get all the stories.

I’m still of two minds as to what comes first, story or character. In standalone books I’ve had stories that then filled up with characters. In series books (whether the Bishop series or the series featuring Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn), I’ve had the characters who then suggested stories. In other words, it seems to work both ways.

And then there is Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George is a crime novelist who has written a thoroughly instructive book on the writing process called Write On.

George starts with an anecdote from Isaac Bashevis Singer who says that when people gather round a dinner table they tend to discuss other people. They will comment about a person, call them good or bad, foolish, bright, generous, lively, or dour killjoys with never a good word to say about anyone or the world.

What he’s saying is that we like to gossip. That we find talking about other people a major source of human entertainment.

And Elizabeth George agrees. For her the foundation of a novel is not about the idea for a story; it’s the characters.

She puts it succinctly: “If you don’t understand that story is character and not just idea, you will not be able to breathe life into even the most intriguing flash of inspiration.”

That’s stating it bluntly.

Events are about people

I agree. This is a major element I deal with in the Writing Fiction course and it has helped a lot of students understand what they’re doing and how to do it. Moving story from idea to character is not an uncommon problem but once you can see how your character operates in your story then the telling of events becomes clearer.

Elizabeth George goes on to elaborate the point I made earlier that we remember books by their characters.

“What we take away from our reading of a good novel mainly is the memory of character. This is because events – both in real life and in fiction – take on greater meaning once we know the people who are involved in them. Put a human face on a disaster and you touch people more deeply; you may even move them inexorably towards taking an action they might have only idly contemplated before that disaster was given a human face.”

She next refers to the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird that was distinguished by lawyer Atticus Finch’s “heroic representation” of Tom Robinson. Finch knows that his client is doomed because of the times and the place and the society they live in. Yet he argues for the man’s humanity.

The novel “rises to the level of timeless, classic literature,” writes George, “not because of its idea – the innocence of childhood set into an ugly landscape of prejudice and brutality – but because of its characters.”

The glue in a story

And this is perfectly true.

“Once we have begun it, we continue reading a novel largely because we care about what happens to the characters. But in order for us actually to care about these actors in the drama on those printed pages, they must become real people to us. An event alone cannot hold a story together. Nor can a series of events. Only characters effecting events and events affecting characters can do that.” (Her italics.)

She’s right but it’s a moot point as to what came first: the story or the character. Stories need characters just as much as characters need stories. So maybe it’s not worth pondering which comes first, just as it’s not worth trying to work out the chicken and egg process. This is where Writing Fiction can assist aspiring writers.

Standalones and series

There are plenty of single characters who exist in only one book and make that book memorable. But with the rise of the series character – think Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and more latterly, (among many other repeat characters), Bosch, Bennie Griessel, Lars Johansson, Karen Pirie – the books are read not because of the story but because of the characters.

That’s how they’re marketed: the new ? Fill in the blank with any series character you can think of. We all want to know, what’s going to happen to the character this time round?

My takeaway

It seems to me – and this is a point raised on the Writing Fiction course – that although characters make our stories, they do not necessarily start those stories.

For writers working on a series, the character already exists and is fitted into a story; for writers dealing with a story where the characters live only in that book, they probably came after the flash of the initial story idea.

Whichever way round it happens, you need memorable characters; characters with interesting names who respond to the drama inflicted on their lives and the drama they cause.

Get more out of your writing.

Click here to join the WriteOnline short course on Writing Fiction.

The next course starts on 15 March 2021.

Click here for a short course on writing a memoir, Writing Reality. The next course starts on 29 March 2021.