Building Character

Eating your spinach, doing your homework, making your bed… I remember that enormous list of things I was supposed to do as a child which was, I was promised, build character. I think there may have been some discussion as to whether or not the character I did eventually develop was in fact quite what my parents had had in mind, and there may even be some question as to how much a role those things played, but in the end…yes. I developed character.

And now I’m a writer. A sort of self-imposed god of a thousand unreal worlds wherein I get to spawn hundreds of thousands (nay, millions!) of characters of my own, and I have to ponder just what has to happen to make them interesting. It’s reminiscent of being an actor, where I have to ask “what’s my motivation?” but on a frightening scale. There are countless books and “how to’s” and “don’t forgets”, but for my money I always bring it to the “Starbucks rule”: Is the character someone you’d like to have coffee with?

Now, granted: we are going to write villains and victims as well as the victors, so you may say, “yes, my antagonist is interesting, but I suspect he’d destroy the Starbucks rather than sit down for a double tall caramel Frappuccino. And, yes. This might be the case. But let’s say that his plans for world domination (or destruction) are at a formative stage where he can just relax over a caffeinated beverage for some pleasant company and intelligent conversation and doesn’t mind leaving the fusion powered death ray in the back seat of his transdimensional planet hopper while nomming on a scone or a low fat sugary treat of some sort. (editor’s note: Ren, this is beginning to sound like a commercial. Stay on track, sir.) Wouldn’t you just love an opportunity to talk to them about their reasons for changing the world? Isn’t their brain a fertile playground, begging for some enthusiastic dialogue?

A topic has crossed my plate a lot, lately, about our over-dependence on the concept of “strong” lead characters. Honestly, I am challenging myself to explore interesting lead characters. The kinds you want to be. Or the kinds you DON’T want to be, but secretly have to admire their relentless drive and passion. Or the ones you’re privately afraid you really are, and hope they’ll pull out from their tailspin. The characters that make you smile, make you laugh, make you cry, or make you wish you had friends just like them to take your side when it feels like the world’s against you. The characters that make you dream of a world you’ve always wanted to live within.

The process of getting to know my characters is almost as varied as the characters themselves, but all too often, the spark grows out of someone I know. Someone I love, or have loved, or admired or I miss. It starts with that smile, that one good conversation we had at two in the morning when the rest of the world was sleeping through the night. It turns into a “what if…?” and before long, I am meeting them on the pages of my books, looking up at me and laughing at the new adventures we are creating for one another. See, when I think of building characters now, it has become a bit more like discovering them. It’s not just that if I eat my spinach that it turns into a personality; and neither do the words on the page, once written, dissolve into a soul. But, as each word is typed out, another facet of these fictionalized individuals reaches up and extends their hand, beckoning me on towards another road untraveled.

Though, that being the case, I really need to stop beating them up. One of these days, they’re gonna get me.


– Ren Cummins

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