Kim Lee: On the Art of Creating Characters
I lean back in my chair and close my eyes. The clock ticks endlessly, but that’s fine. It helps my concentration. Something like a giant screen unfolds in the darkness. Smiling, I paint the scene. Everything is in place; the flora and the fauna, the sticks and stones. Bricks and mortar, fire or ice. Whatever I need to be there, is there. But there is something missing. Whether I’ve created a small town, or a space flight, a bedroom or a garden, the missing element remains the same. The scene is missing people. Characters. Those beings that will bring the whole thing to life.
I rarely ever plan my characters ahead of time, beyond assigning their names and role in the story. But when I am ready to visualize them, I do so with excessive detail. If my story is about a business man who had a troubled childhood, I create a mental picture that says exactly that. It may be plain, but more often, it’s subtle. I might picture a man in a suit, looking confident, carrying an attaché case. That’s his initial image. But I will also see the way he grabs his hands behind his back when criticized, jumps when offered a handshake, and his bizarre leather phobia.
Characters. Those beings that will bring the whole thing to life.
To the reader, such details are merely amusing—or curious—at first. But they are important bits of information that do more for the story than would lines of straight narration. When I create a character, I create them to tell their own story, with as few words as possible. When a reader finally discovers that their classic executive is really a frightened man struggling with self-esteem (hands behind his back when criticized), flashbacks (handshakes resembling the way his father would reach out to grab him) and post-traumatic stress disorder (strange fear triggered by childhood beatings with a peculiar leather belt), they feel a sense of satisfaction, almost as though they have solved a personality mystery themselves—rather than being told a bunch of facts about the individual.
But characters are more than personality. They have to interact, and the characters need to be realistic in their interaction. All agreement is unlikely, as is all disagreement. A constant ebb and flow of positive and negative emotions is ideal, just like in real life. Siblings finishing each other’s sentences, couples interrupting each other and business executives snapping like crabs—typical, but necessary to make it all seem real. Sometimes, I try different dynamics as well. What about a nerdy little kid that talks to a lawyer as though they were equal in size, or the store cashier that greets every customer with huge smile and an interrogation about their state of mind that evening? We’ve all met strange people, and they make us smile—at least, in retrospect. They will make your readers smile too, if you put such characters into a story.
Characters are more than personality
Finally, I think about their language. Few people speak with perfect grammar and pronunciation. We normally speak in clipped, colloquial ways, and that’s how most characters should talk. Those who deviate are special. They are the characters whose language sets them apart; you know, the nerd in class who speaks the Queen’s English, or the Justice of the Peace who takes his office a bit too seriously. Readers can ‘hear’ the characters in their head better when their speaking style is realistic.
None of these are hard and fast rules, but they work. Creating characters is a creative process, not limited by much more than your imagination and ability to put them together well.