Mar 22, 2010

James Baldwin and Character Who-ness

I had one of those special moments when a speaker's comment makes sense on a deeper level. James Baldwin, a revered writer featured on the audiobook Writers Speak: A collection of interviews with writers on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, stated simply yet poignantly that before he could write he needed to detach himself from labels and focus on 'who' he was rather than 'what' he was

This got my wee little brain ticking. When I create characters I usually start with the descriptors: age, race, gender, eye colour, etc. It's after I decide if they are a school girl or an ageing minister, that I wonder what they're like. Perhaps this is going about the task backwards. Perhaps we could start with thinking about 'who' our character is, and then wonder what they are. After all, it's the WHO that makes us human, the WHO that separates us.

Sure your story might have a mother, a child, a villain and a superhero. One might be tall, another short. Perhaps one shouts and one whispers, one wears green lycra and the other only white cotton. But those things are just traits and descriptors. They might all seem different in their descriptions but will just blend into each other if there is no individual WHO. Try making it tricky on yourself - what if all your characters had the exact same descriptions, what if they were all the same WHAT

In Richard Adam's Watership Down almost all the characters were wild rabbits. Now with a multitude of bunnies hoppin' about everywhere, how are you going to feel for each character? Yet Watership Down made many reader shed a tear for the little critters, and why? Because they had an element of human about them. 

Next time you watch Avatar (and admit it, most of us WILL watch it again), look at the scene where the natives are fleeing the destruction. James Cameron manages to take a huge number of characters and make their reactions unique. Some are angry, others fearful and some carry children and wail in anguish. So irrelevant is the 'what', the main character changes his 'what' from human military soldier to communal native villager with the help of a generated body.

I've done work on character profiles before that look at what the character's likes and dislikes are, but it needs to go deeper. I need to think about every appearing character and what they each yearn for, what they cherish from life and what they fear the most.

These insights into your character's souls can be revealed in many ways. In The Boleyn Inheritance, Phillipa Gregory paints Katherine Howard (young bride to Henry VIII of England), as a teenager obsessed with pretty things and appearances (hmm, how unlike today's teens). She seems vain and petty but you can not help but have your heart break for her when in the tower she is asked what she would like brought to her the night before her execution. Katherine requests the wooden block, so she can practice putting her head on it. She wants to make sure she looks nice for the audience when her head comes off. Even if we don't agree or like this character's persona, we feel her human quality.

In Dog Show Detective, I have a few characters that are acting more like 'extras' so I want to search a bit deeper and see if I can discover their 'who-ness'.

The most recent film I saw, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, had a character inform the young vampire: "Being human's not about what you are, it's about who you are". Make your characters human (even if they're aliens or vampires). Just add WHO.

PS - I still have Google Wave invites to share. If you would like to set up a Google Wave account, read my last post: Competition - Get Your Google Wave Account!, and because I've noticed my followers list growing (hello new followers!) I'm browsing for suitable prizes to have a  fun competition when I reach 100 followers.


  1. Great post! I love that idea of writing a story where everyone looks the same to push yourself to make their insides different. That would be a great exercise!

  2. Excellent subject! The "who" they are is the hardest part for me to think up and convey.

  3. Enjoyed the post - what a good way of really finding out who your character is. I'm definitely going to use this to flesh out all my characters. Thanks!

  4. Great food for though, Charmaine, thanks! This is encouraging for me. I just let me writing loosen up a little yesterday and wander somewhere unexpected. That's always good for releasing the WHO.

  5. Thanks for the comments! - took my own advice yesterday and solved a problem I had with Dog Show Detective. Darn father was always just hanging about, now I know who he is, I can give him better action. :-)

  6. Wow. Just wow. I bookmarked this post and printed it for my writing file. This is your best yet (IMO). :-)

    P.S. Thanks for the invite to Google Wave