Thursday, January 22, 2009

Images and Voices

I’ve been struggling to come up with what to write about on this topic all week. Not that I have anyone but myself to blame, because I think this topic was my idea! But now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve realized that I don’t really "build" my characters, at least, not consciously. When I start a story, I usually have the basic plot idea first. Then I think about how a person might react/act in that situation. But from there I always feel like the characters sort of build themselves.

A main character usually comes to me as an image. I’ve written before about how The September Sisters began only with the image of two girls fighting in a pool. For my second YA novel, The Life of Glass, (out from Harperteen in Winter 2010) I started the book with only the image of a girl riding her bike in a prom dress. This actually never ended up happening in the book (though there is a crucial bike riding scene at one point) but it told me a lot about the character, that she was the kind of person who was impulsive or impatient enough to do this.

Other times I hear a character’s voice. A line of dialogue pops into my head, and then I know exactly who the character is. In The September Sisters, Abigail’s next door neighbor looks after her for a while after her sister disappears. When I first heard her voice in my head, it was in broken English, with an accent. I heard her mispronouncing Abigail’s name, and then I realized that she was an elderly Hispanic lady. The same was true with Abigail’s father – I could hear the stern way he continually called her “Ab,” and then I knew exactly what kind of father he was.

How do I imagine and hear these things? How do I get from these small moments to a full-fleshed out character? I’m not exactly sure. In my head a book always starts like a puzzle, a thousand tiny little pieces that at first seem to make no sense. But I take the little pieces, the voices, the images, and I just start writing what I do know. As I write, it all, somewhat miraculously, starts to come together.

Sure, I learn a character’s quirks and nuances along the way, and when I revise I have to go back and change things that, after learning more about the character, don’t feel just right. But I never feel like a character is “built.” From that very first image or word, a character always just feels like a real person to me, and like any other relationship, as you get to know this person more and more, the little things, the things that make you love (or hate) someone eventually reveal themselves.

Yet, despite thinking of my characters as real people, immersing myself in their lives, even dreaming about them, what I love most about character building is the thing that separates it utterly from real life. With characters, I am completely in control of their destiny. I can manipulate them to do and say what I want, to find resolution in chaos, and hope in disaster. And then, 75,000 words or so and several revisions later, I get to say goodbye. And start all over again.


Tracy Madison said...

Awesome post, Jillian! For me, I feel much the's more that I need to learn who my characters are, rather than "build" them to up. Isn't it amazing how one little image or voice in our heads will push that process along?

Jillian Cantor said...

Thanks, Tracy! It's good to know someone else feels the same way. I felt a little bit like a crazy person, writing about voices and images in my head!

Maureen Lipinski said...

Yes! I often do feel like a crazy person with character voices in my head. Or when I'm reading through a completed MS and I laugh out loud at what one of them says.

Jessica said...

I recall another post where you talked about the naming of characters. It's interesting how names/pronunciations of names/the nicknames loved ones call each other/etc. are so important to you when writing characters. Maybe your next book should revolve around name-calling! :)

Jillian Cantor said...

It's true, Jessica. I do have a thing with names! You should've seen what I was like when it came to naming my children :-).