Wednesday, April 01, 2009

David B. Coe on Characterization

As promised, today my guest is David B. Coe and we are going to savor his wisdom regarding characterization. It seems I've known David forever, though it's only been a few years. We don't get to see each other at the conventions very often, but when we do it's always a pleasure to catch up on what's new in our respective lives. Since David has plenty of experience creating memorable characters, he is the perfect candidate to tell us how he goes about one of the trickiest aspects of novel writing.

Hi. I’m David B. Coe. Jana invited me here today to discuss my approach to developing characters for my books. Thanks, for the invite, Jana. It’s good to be here.

Let me begin by telling you a bit about myself: I’m the author of ten published fantasy novels including the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands. My most recent novel, The Horsemen’s Gambit, the second book in my Southlands trilogy, came out in January. The final Southlands book, The Dark-Eyes’ War, will be out early next year. You can find sample chapters of all my books, as well as contests, world maps, and other information at my website,

In many ways, Jana asked me the $64,000.00 question (actually that’s been devalued a bit over the years -- let’s go $64,000,000.00). To me character is the key to a successful novel or story. Worldbuilding and plotting are important, but to my mind really interesting characters can overcome flawed worldbuilding and a lackluster plot. But if your characters are flat, boring, or unsympathetic, no amount of fancy worldbuilding or plot complexity will save your book. That’s my opinion anyway.

So how do I develop my characters? What I’ll outline here applies mostly to lead and major secondary characters, though the differences between what I do with them and how I handle the minor characters are more differences of degree than of fundamental approach.

Step 1 -- Inspiration: I’m often asked where I get my ideas for my books and stories, and it’s a question I kind of hate. The reason is I can’t answer it. My ideas come from all over, they come from everything I experience, every conversation I have, every emotion I feel. They come from that part of my brain that is constantly asking “What if?” But though one book idea might begin with a scene, and another with a magic system, and yet another some aspect of worldbuilding, those initial ideas are always followed closely by the first glimpse of my main character. I won’t get much from this initial inspiration -- a name might come to mind, or some key trait, or perhaps an important detail from his or her past. Just enough to make me realize that a) this is the lead character in my new project, and b) I need to get to know this person better.

Step 2 -- The Interview: All right, I know that sounds weird. I’m going to interview a character I’m making up in my head? Well, yeah, I am. The interview consists of taking that kernel of an idea from step 1 and turning it into a living, breathing person. So I begin to ask questions. Sometimes that’s literally what I do. I open a blank word file and begin to brainstorm by asking myself questions about this person and typing out answers. (For the sake of simplicity in this post and to avoid the “he or she” thing, I’ll assume it’s a man, as it is in my latest work) Where is he from? Who were his parents and what were they like? Does he have siblings? What was his childhood like? What are his best traits? His worst? What does he look like? What does he do for a living? What has been his romantic history? Is he outgoing or a loner? Where has life taken him thus far?

There’s really no end to the questions one can ask, and to be honest, the answer to one quite often leads directly to the next, so that I usually stop “asking” questions fairly early in the process and just let his life story flow. The important thing for me is to get all the background that I need before I begin to write.

Step 3 -- Finding the Voice: More often than not, my lead character will also be my point of view character -- my narrator, in a sense. In my multi-strand novels, several of my major characters will be point of view characters. So the next thing I like to do is begin writing scenes and short stories from the viewpoint of the character I’ve created. Some of these might find their way into the book and in fact at times I merely begin work on the early chapters, though they usually wind up being reworked considerably. At other times, I’ll write a short piece that will have nothing to do with the book but that I might try to sell as a stand alone short story. The primary point of this is to take all that information I’ve gathered in the “Interview” and turn it into a unique and compelling voice for writing the novel. It’s not enough for a character to have a detailed and distinct personal history. He also has to have a personality, and that comes out in the way he tells his story.

Step 4 -- The Quickening: The verb “quicken” can mean, in its more obscure usage, the act of coming to life, and people have often referred to the quickening of a pregnancy as the time when a child is first felt to move. That’s exactly how I mean the word here. There comes a time in my writing when my character(s) begin to act on his (their) own, when I find myself surprised by some of the things they do and say. It’s a wonderful feeling, almost like when one of my daughters expressed her first truly original thought or first said something truly, creatively funny. That moment in a character’s development when he begins to take on the traits of a living, breathing person who is as independent of me as any creature of my imagination can be -- that’s the moment when I know that steps 1-3 have worked. At its best, character development is the creation of people who are capable of interacting freely with each other and with the world I’ve shaped for them. When my work is flowing well, when the characters are fully realized, when they’ve “quickened,” I become little more than a chronicler of their actions and a stenographer keeping track of their conversations. The growth of my characters and the development of my narrative become linked at an organic level so that it seems that the characters are driving the plot.

There’s really no secret to creating good characters, and it may be that your approach is nothing like mine but achieves results that are just as good or better. This is the process that works for me, and if you’ve been struggling with your character development recently you may find that adopting some or all of my method will help. In any case, happy writing!


Jana Oliver said...

Thanks for joining us, David! Fabulous information, my friend.

I do the character interview in "person." I sit the character down and ask them questions, face to face (at least in my mind) which often leads to a recalcitrant character telling me to go away (but not usually in those polite terms). Every now and then I'll invite a group of the characters out for a drink, mentally park myself in a corner and eavesdrop on their conversations. Often some of the hidden dynamics are revealed in that way. I take notes, like a reporter. It's a weird way to do it, but it seems to work for me.

Evan Marshall said...

Great blog. I always find it helpful to flesh out a character's background first. These decisions then shape the character today. For instance, in my current mystery series my protagonist rebelled long ago against her wealthy family and took a blue-collar job. Now, years later, there is still friction on this issue between her and her family.

Evan Marshall

Jana Oliver said...

What's always interesting is that you think you've defined the character and then they come up with something out of the blue. Like having a cupcake phobia or something like that. It's fun to play with those personality quirks. A mutual friend of ours, Jeri Smith-Ready, does that with her vampires in her WVMP - Life Blood of Rock 'n Roll series. Her vamps are seriously OCD. Because of their compulsions, they feel more 'real'.

Mary Marvella said...

Most of my characters come to me fully developed, except for the things they won't tell me, the deep secrets they make me learn as I go along.

Interesting approach, David. Great guest, Jana. Thanks for letting us know about this post.

David B. Coe said...

Thanks, Jana, for allowing me to post here today. And thanks, Evan and Mary, for the kind comments. Those past decisions do ramify throughout a character's life, Evan. At least they should. Sounds like an interesting approach in your book. And yes, Mary, even with all I learn about my characters prior to writing a book, they continue to surprise me as I write, often taking the book in directions I hadn't anticipated.

Anonymous said...

I love the interview idea!

steve on the slow train said...

Thank you, David, for your ideas--and your modesty for writing, " it may be that your approach is nothing like mine but achieves results that are just as good or better." But your idea of interviewing characters is a brilliant one.

And thanks to Jana for inviting you.