[personal profile] bramblethorn
In part 1 I discussed how I created characters for Stringed Instrument as a short story. After writing that short story, I decided it would be interesting to develop it into a novella (well, that was the plan; it ended up as a full-length novel).

Funny thing is, even though it was a continuation of the same story with the same characters, the change to a long format caused quite a shift in how I approached plot/character development...

As discussed in my last post, plot/character decisions for the short story were very much driven by the initial outline: "A gets angry at B and lashes out by seducing C". Character details tended to be driven by that outline: "Hey, Yvonne, I need you to get angry at RJ and seduce Phoebe. How can we make that plausible?"

But in the extended story, things become much more open. I had a rough idea of where I intended to go, but a lot of it was driven by the characters. Once they're fleshed out to a certain degree, instead of asking "what do I need Phoebe to do in this scene?" it becomes more "what would Phoebe do in this scene?"

Sometimes it starts to feel as if the characters are writing themselves - for instance, the scene where Phoebe talks about RJ buying her an expensive cello came as a surprise to me. It wasn't something I had planned, it just came out, and it seemed perfect. It added so much depth to the relationship between her and RJ.

I can't really offer advice on how to get to that stage, but when it happens, I recommend going with it, even if it changes the direction of the story. You might not end up where you expected but it'll probably be somewhere interesting - and if not, well, you can always delete it later.

Still, it doesn't all happen like that (worse luck!) and I do still have to think a bit about my characters. Some of the principles I try to follow:

Steal from real life (but not too closely). A lot of the emotional arcs in SI are related to things I've experienced, although I've changed the context a great deal. Some of the side anecdotes are also drawn from real life.

(By the way, real life steals too. A week after introducing one side character who was supposed to be 100% fictional, I met the husband of one of my partner's relatives - he was the spitting image of the character I'd created, with the same personality, mannerisms, profession, and first name. I had to rename my character in a hurry! And a week after I wrote about the emotional impact of unexpected death, something very similar happened in my own family.)

Make sure your characters each have more than one motivation. Characters who have just one ambition in life can work well in adventure stories (say, The Princess Bride) but for a character-driven story, it works much better when they have more than one dimension. Partly because it makes them feel more realistic, partly because it offers so many more possibilities and conflicts.

Phoebe has at least five important motivations: her attraction to Yvonne, maintaining her relationship with RJ and Yaya, establishing her independence via her musical career, achieving some sort of moral victory over Helen, and repairing relations with Helen. A great deal of the story is driven by Phoebe's attempts to juggle those priorities - not always successfully.

Everybody comes from somewhere. People are influenced by their background, even when they try to escape it. What sort of family did your character come from? What sort of school did they go to?

Phoebe's relationship with her family is obviously a major part of the story. Yvonne doesn't talk about her parents much, but that's a significant silence: she's effectively given up on having a close relationship with them, and I think that influences her personality, contributing to her prickliness and insecurity.

What relationships are important to them? In this story a lot of that is covered by 'family' above, but it's worth remembering: even minor characters should not be defined solely by their relationship with the protagonist.

Nobody's perfect. Everybody should have some flaws - and I don't mean cop-outs like "oh, I don't sing very well", real flaws. I know some readers were quite angry at Phoebe when she broke Yvonne's trust - but if Yvonne wasn't carrying around a chip on her shoulder, perhaps she would've given Phoebe a chance to explain her side of things, instead of deliberately hurting her.

By the same token, nobody's perfectly bad. Having introduced RJ as a homophobe, and presumably a threat to Yvonne's relationship with Phoebe, I needed to develop a sympathetic side to him (and likewise for Yaya). It's easier to shrug off somebody else's hostility when you can write them off as a waste of skin. It hurts a lot more when it comes from somebody whose opinion you value.

Incidentally, one of the more effective ways to develop reader sympathy for an antagonistic character is to show the things they're scared of.

Don't be too tidy. Not everything needs to have a neat explanation or a resolution. Phoebe's ambiguous sexuality is a source of confusion for both her and Yvonne throughout the story; the closest they really get to a resolution on this is accepting that "it's complicated".

Don't be too grim. It's not much of a story if things are always going well for the characters, but I don't like to read stories where everything's bleak and everybody's horrible (see also: Bret Easton Ellis). Even if I don't put the book down, I end up disengaging from the story, and it has less power to affect me.

In SI, I used humour to season the grim bits - even when Yaya is frightened and in pain, or when Yvonne is miserable about a break-up, there's room for a little black comedy. In other stories where humour wasn't appropriate I've used acts of kindness and love in the middle of bad times.
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