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Why Characters should be Mysterious to the Author

There’s a lot of advice around about creating character profiles and carefully planning how a character will evolve from the beginning to the end of a story. I prefer Julia Cameron’s advice: “I don’t create characters. I meet them.” Just sit down and find out about a character as you write. If you make your character consistent with a “profile” they’re likely to come across as flat and formulaic. Real people are mysterious – we think we know someone and they surprise us.  So should our characters. This edgy approach to character development keeps a story unpredictable. If the author doesn’t know what a character’s going to do next, then neither does the reader.

How to Meet Characters

One way to “meet” characters is to write passages of dialogue quickly and spontaneously without censoring what each character says. Write the same scene of dialogue a number of times, allowing it to go in different directions with the new responses of each character. This is especially exciting if a character says something you don’t want them to say – you find out things you didn’t know about them and you’ve suddenly got a back story or a motive or a personality quirk you weren’t aware of.

The Benefits of a Wild Goose Chase

Writing several versions of a scene gives you more material than you need, takes you on a wild good chase with your characters, but this depth is never wasted. In fact when you decide which parts of the different dialogues to use, you often blend chunks from several versions creating something bigger than a planned process would have achieved.

An Example from the Selkie Moon Mystery Series

While writing Book Two, one character recently hurled an unexpected insult at another. In discovering the reason for the insult I’ve uncovered a back story for the insulted character, giving this character more depth. I then went back to an earlier scene and planted a hint that points towards this back story – to satisfy the observant reader. Now I have the opportunity to weave this back story into future scenes.