Monday, June 4, 2018

You Do What?

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Every so often one of my writers' groups will conduct a workshop on 'how to create a character.' I've taken a few of them and the methods range from a half-dozen point checklist to a six page questionnaire that goes into such depth as the character's favorite flavor of Jello, the schools he attended, what kind of pet he had as a child.... You get the idea.

I've tried them all, and each time created a deep, multi-faceted character. A completely dead deep, multi-faceted character. They had all the proper points, but they never came to life on the page. Working with them resulted in all the joy and sparkle of Silly Putty. Oh, they moved from Point A to Point B when I directed them, and spoke the words I put in their mouths, but they were reminiscent of nothing so much as Gumby or King Kong - their movements were obviously stop-animation instead of really coming to life.

So I quit taking classes and went back to what I've always done - letting the character come to me. Almost every writer has snorted with disbelief when I tell them about the birth of my characters, but - other than my occasional forays into how-to-create-characters classes - it's always worked for me.

So what do I do? Nothing. My characters simply walk in, tell me their name, and start fitting into the vague storyline that I've started with. And yes, they tell me their names. Once I really didn't like a character's (the hero!) name and changed it. He didn't like it, so he shut up and refused to speak to me again until I changed it back to what he wanted some three weeks later.

Who said writers had complete control in their own world?

I know this technique (technique? maybe dictatorship?) wouldn't work for all writers. Huh, it may not work for any writer besides me, but that's the point. Even if I'm the only one it works for, it does work for me. I know the character's-favorite-Jello system works for some people. It doesn't work for me, but I'm glad it works for them.

What I'm trying to say is that there is no one singular this-way-only technique for writing a book. The only thing that we all should do is write a good book. How we write that book is up to us. There are many good techniques, probably some I've never heard of. The important thing is that each writer has to find the one that works for him. Or which ones work for him. There's no rule saying you can only use one technique. As long as you turn out a good book, it doesn't matter.


  1. I agree--there is no single "right way" to write a book. Whatever works!

  2. Susan, you reminded me of the old line, "There are three rules to writing a book. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." My characters are like yours. They show up and do their thing. I just write it down.

  3. Susan, I've had the same experience with outlining. I even gave a workshop on outlining a book. There are several different techniques. They all sound great, and they work for a lot of writers, but every time I try to outline a book... Well, at some point along the way the story goes the direction it wants to go and I toss that outline aside.