Building (a) Character BY Judith Geary
author: Getorix: The Eagle and The Bull
“You said this book didn’t end the way you planned it,” the school librarian said. “You said the ending belonged to the characters.”
I nodded. I had indeed shared this tidbit with her as we talked before the program.
“But you’re the author. How can that happen?”
She had me there. And she had me in front of about sixty middle school kids and on camera. This school system recorded their author programs to share with other classes later, so whatever I answered might come back to haunt me more than once. I don’t usually think of a muse as the stereotype of an angel on your shoulder, but this time that angel was there.
“When you’re building an character in a story,” I answered, giving myself time to compose as I spoke, “You do it the same way you build your own character – making small decisions every day. You may not think of them as important at the time, but after a while you become the kind of person who does things in a certain way. If you suddenly do something entirely different, people who know you will be surprised and say you’ve done something, ‘out of character.’
“Building a character in a story is much the same as building your own character. As you write, you make choices about how the person in the story acts – how they respond to things that happen, what kind of decisions they make. If you’ve done a good job, the reader feels like they know the person in your story in much the same way they know their friends. They know how they expect the character to act in certain situations by the kind of person they are. So, if you suddenly change the character at the end of the story, they won’t believe you.
“In writing Getorix, I’d made him a certain kind of person by the choices he’d made all through the book. So, at the end, he had become the kind of person who would do things in a certain way. To end the book as I’d originally planned it simply wouldn’t work.
“So Getorix got to work out his own ending. I just wrote it down.”
I’ve never been able to improve on this explanation. Of course, writing for a adult audience of sophisticated authors, I can talk about Intrinsic Personality Theory (our belief that certain personality traits go together in a package, so that if we observe certain behaviors or traits we believe that we know more things about the person.) I can throw in an explanation of how the Myers Briggs Type Indicator can help identify character motivation – particularly if the character’s type is different than your own. And it can. Beverly Pinske presented a couple of programs for HCW in late 2004 about using various personality tests to better understand your characters. Using the MBTI helped me a great deal in understanding why Getorix was so bloody obsessed with how people perceived him.
But in the end, it’s all smoke and mirrors.
You build the characters in your fiction the same way you build your own character – one small decision at a time.
Visit my website: www.judithgeary.com for information about the book and about the Roman Republic