Characters are the staple of fiction. A story doesn’t exist without something that resembles characters (human or otherwise), and the more interesting the characters, generally the better the work. If I’m not interested in the characters, then a story seldom holds my attention, and I might as well be reading a dry piece of scientific literature.
As a writer, coming up with complex characters that interest readers (not mention me) can sometimes be a challenge. While I often find character generation a relatively fun exercise, I sometimes get stuck. I’ll have a solid story idea, but no character to fit into it.
A fellow writer recently pointed out to me a character creation approach that caught my eye. That it came from Samuel R. Delany—one of my favorite science fiction writers—makes it even cooler. (If you haven’t read any of Delany’s work, run, don’t walk, to the nearest online or brick-and-mortar bookstore or library and pick up one of his novels—I recommend Nova—you won’t be disappointed.)
According to Delany, any two facts linked to a pronoun will begin to generate a character in the reader’s mind. But it’s the addition of a third fact, that in some ways goes against what the first two suggest and requires the author to generate a reason to explain it, that creates a complex and interesting character.
I’ve never thought about it much, but this is genius; it’s concise and simple to visualize and put into practice. Most importantly, I find it gets at the heart of internal character conflict, which is important as a driving mechanism in stories (at least in western literature).
Hmmm . . . let me see . . . (1) she loves her daughter, (2) she’s a historian specializing in 18th century architecture, and (3) she collects souls for the Angel of Darkness. I can already see the character’s internal conflict: why does a loving, historian collect souls for the Angel of Darkness? There are a bunch of possibilities that jump to mind, all of which generate potentially interesting story ideas. Oooo , I think I like this.
I’ll have to play with this one a little more, but before I do that, I want to get a copy Delany’s book “About Writing” and check it out—I didn’t even know it existed until recently! Apparently that’s where I can find out more about his observations on characters, along with many of his other insights on writing.