[personal profile] bramblethorn
Question from a reader: "Your characters are fully fleshed out... Do you mind if I ask about your process for creating characters?"

I'm not sure how accurate an answer I can give to this one. Characterisation is quite an intuitive process for me; I don't usually plan it out consciously, I don't keep notes, and it's hard to reconstruct my thought processes in hindsight. So I'll describe what I think my brain was doing back when I wrote "Stringed Instrument", but take it with a grain of salt.

I get story concepts from many different places. Sometimes it's personal experience, sometimes it's from an incident described to me by a friend, sometimes from dreams. Often they sit around in my head for years because I don't have enough to work with. (Dreams are the most frustrating - they come with a strong feeling of mood and no clues for how to convey that mood or fit it into a plot!)

But sooner or later, a concept gets to the point where I feel like it's time to sit down and start writing. By that stage, the concept will have a couple of character roles attached - at this stage they're still very fuzzy, but it's somewhere to start from. From there, character and plot develop simultaneously, so this discussion covers both.


Originally 'A Stringed Instrument' was written as a short story that corresponds to Chapter 1 of the final version. The concept started out something like this:

A is angry at B, who has some connection to C (partner? father?) A seduces C - initially it's about lashing out at B, but then attraction between A and C takes over.

(BTW, one of the things that always fascinates me is the alchemy whereby different emotions interact and transform one another. I don't think Yvonne would've been so angry at RJ if she hadn't already felt isolated and awkward, and she would never have acted on her attraction to Phoebe without that anger to spark things off.)

From there, I started to flesh out the plot and characters - simultaneously, because in a story like this there's not really much distinction between plot and characterisation. It's almost two years since I started on SI so I can't be sure of exactly how it went, and like I said, it's largely an intuitive process. I didn't sit down with a checklist of questions, I'm not sure that I even consciously considered most of these things, and it's possible I'm just rationalising things in hindsight here. But I think this is roughly how my subconscious worked it out.

What's the connection between A and B?

Employee/employer seemed like a good answer here. It helps explain why A is acting out behind B's back, rather than confronting him directly.

Why is A angry at B?

The simplest answer is that B's done something really horrible, a <url="http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/main/kickthedog">Kick The Puppy moment. But I try to avoid writing outright villains if I can help it; even minor characters are more interesting when they have some complexity to them. (There is one two-dimensional bad guy in SI, but he's a relatively minor character, and in my defense he's no more of a caricature than some people I've met IRL...)

The second-simplest option is that A is just naturally vengeful. But that's not a very sympathetic character; I've been known to write unpleasant protagonists, but I wasn't in the mood this time. And besides, "naturally vengeful" is still a caricature. So, what else can I do?

Personal aside: a few years back I was at a party where several of the others were using drugs, which I don't do - just not my thing, except for mild and infrequent alcohol. Usually I don't mind what other people do as long as they don't get me into trouble, but this time I was feeling alienated because I'd come to the party to hang out with friends, and they'd all chosen an activity that excluded me. I was drifting around, feeling sulky and pissed off, but without a target for that hostility.

Then a good friend accidentally insulted me - no harm intended, just a cheap unthinking crack at a group to which he'd forgotten I belong. Usually I'd have ignored it, but - well, have you ever seen what happens when you drop a tiny nucleus into a supercooled liquid that's just WAITING to freeze? That diffused sulky-and-grumpy suddenly crystallised into anger, and I walked out of the room before I could blow my top.

That seemed like an interesting piece of emotional chemistry, so why not use something similar in the story? B isn't trying to tread on A's toes, doesn't even realise he's doing it, and A is already in a brittle kind of mood. (The other factor here - that Yvonne thinks she's about to be fired - was added a bit later in the process. More on that later.)

I tend to write F-F stories by default, and I was writing this story for a friend whose preferences lie in that direction. That suggests an obvious explanation for how RJ manages to offend Yvonne, and it also ties in nicely with the nature of her reaction.

So why is Phoebe straight? The "straight falls for gay" concept is quite popular; I can't say for sure why other writers use it so much, but I'd guess a lot of it is for the same reason that "nerd ends up with hottest girl in school" is common - we always want what's unattainable.

In this story there were a couple of other reasons why I went that way. One is that I know first-hand that sometimes people end up in relationships that contradict their orientation, and I was interested in exploring that paradox. The other is that the "getting back at RJ" aspect works better that way.

(BTW, I shouldn't have to say this, but: sleeping with somebody as a way of settling a score is a REALLY BAD IDEA for all sorts of reasons. Ultimately, Yvonne's anger at RJ isn't the reason why Yvonne wants to sleep with Phoebe, but it's what pushes her out of her natural caution and allows her to act on that desire. Like I said, emotions are funny things.)

The back-story incident where Yvonne outs herself to Peter is similar to something else that happened to me in real life, with an obnoxious co-worker who made bad assumptions about me to the point where I felt obliged to correct them in public.

Now we're starting to get a feel for Yvonne's personality. The fact that Peter and RJ didn't realise she was gay implies that she's not out at work (or wasn't, until Peter pushed her to it - and still not to RJ). She's an outsider, she's keeping secrets from her colleagues, and she resents it.

What does Yvonne do for a living?

The "outsider" angle makes more sense if somehow she's not doing the same job as her colleagues. Again, possibly influenced by real life - I used to work as a technical specialist for people who had very little understanding of what I do. So Yvonne ends up as tech support for a real estate company. (By default my protagonists tend to be nerdy types with a university education, because that's what I know best.) The Christmas-party setting makes sense here - it's when everybody is supposed to be having fun and socialising, so it really highlights Yvonne's alienation from her colleagues.

What about Phoebe? And how does Yvonne get interested in her in the first place?

I've already started to develop Yvonne as an introvert. But the chemistry with Phoebe won't work if they never talk to one another! So how can we break the ice?

Solution: Phoebe is also an outsider in the context of this party, somebody with no interest in real estate. I could've given her a similar profession to Yvonne's, made her a programmer or something like that. But it seems more interesting if her profession is just as different again - it creates a contrast between them. I also have some experience with dating artists, which may have influenced the choice here.

The story concept already has a D/S vibe to it, and I was interested in the imagery of person as instrument - if I know that the right words and actions will make them react in a certain way, where does their agency end and mine begin? Others before me have used the "woman as cello/cello as woman" metaphor, but it still seemed like a good idea.

(Mind you, if I'd realised I was going to write a novel where Phoebe's musical career became important, perhaps I'd have picked an instrument that I actually knew something about...)

Why is Phoebe at the party?

A grown woman doesn't usually go to her father's office party. Answer: it's at his house, which suggests that he's not just Yvonne's boss but the boss of the company.

But it still seems a bit odd that she stayed instead of going out for the night with friends from her own circle. This suggested the idea that maybe she's visiting from out of town, so it's more important to spend time with her dad. The fact that she's on holiday also makes it a little bit more believable that she'd accept Yvonne's advances - a touch of "what happens in Vegas", if you like.

I think this is also where RJ's migrant background came in. The cultural difference adds to the pressure for Phoebe to stay with her father. It also lets me play with that theme of covering from a different angle: what Yvonne's doing now, suppressing her identity to fit in at work, is pretty much what RJ was doing forty-odd years ago. There's no longer any need for RJ to conceal his origins - these days Australia's anti-migrant prejudice focusses on newer arrivals - but now he's built up a business as "RJ" it's too late to go back.

When I created RJ, I didn't know his family background was going to become so important to the story. It doesn't play a big part in Chapter 1, but because I had that complexity there from the start, it meant that when I did extend the story I had material to work with.

Are we done yet?

I have the basic plot, and I have the three main actors: Yvonne, Phoebe, and RJ. I could stop here, but there's room for improvement. In particular, there are a couple of weaknesses that I'd like to fix.

So far it's a very linear story: girl meets girl, girl wants girl, girl sleeps with girl. In a genre where you know somebody's going to get lucky by the end of the story, there's not much suspense there.

It's also a very black-and-white story: Gay heroine gets picked on by homophobic workmates, wins out in the end, classic modern-day morality tale. I don't like black-and-white in fiction; it feels sanctimonious and it misses out on the complexity that makes reality interesting.

Introducing Susan allows me to shake that up. We can still guess that Yvonne and Phoebe are going to sleep together, but it's not obvious how Susan's side-plot is going to turn out, and by adding a bit of breathing space after "girl wants girl" it allows a bit of anticipation. The resolution to that side-plot makes the story less black-and-white by establishing that Yvonne is fallible (and perhaps a trifle paranoid), as well as showing that she does have at least one ally at work.

I hope that gives at least some idea of how I develop characters. Later, I'll talk about how I extended this to the longer story.

To be continued...

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bramblethorn

February 2014

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