How Do Characters Come to Life?

I always say that my stories start with a character and a question, and that’s true. I always have an imaginary person in mind when I start. Often I feel like I know them very well. Sometimes it takes the entire first “zero” draft for me to get a grip on what/who they are. That’s largely what the rough draft is for. (Well, that and hashing out something that approximates a plot, but that’s another posting.)

Sometimes, though, usually with a secondary character, I’ll write a line or a bit of dialogue almost at random, and that will make the character click into perfect focus. Suddenly, I’ll understand them perfectly.

An example of this is a character who appears in the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. Ilsanja is Trevian’s Langtree’s jilted fiancé. She is, or was, a close friend of his younger sister. Ilsanja plays an important role in the sequel and in the third book as well, but when I first imagined her in 2013, she was a flat character, just an avatar of a social-climber.

Back then, I wrote a bad short story with an unhappy man named Trevian Langtree as the main character. Nearly all of the ideas for world-building and character conflicts that make up Aluminum Leaves and Copper Road are in it, just poorly-defined. Trevian is a rebellious, brooding young man at a crossroads in his life, although when the story opens he doesn’t know it. He, along with a childhood friend and his “pledged bride,” Ilsanja, is going to a fair in a small town close to their home. The fair, and the town, is the scene of one disillusionment after another. I wanted to show that Ilsanja and Trevian are at odds from the point the story starts; she is jabbing him with the social weapons at which she is adept, opening flirting with his friend, giving Trevian cool, polite stares whenever he speaks. To be fair, Trevian is sulking and he isn’t much better.

I knew that the marriage of Trevian and Ilsanja was not a love match; it was an arranged marriage, a way to combine two fortunes and two sources of political power in the boomtown where they lived. I knew that Trevian hated everything about that and felt trapped, but I didn’t really know how Ilsanja felt about it all. At first I was focused on decking her out in high-fashion clothes and making her cooly mean, which I achieved. But she was still… a suit of fancy clothes, not a person.

There was some action in the plot, when Ilsanja is kidnapped for ransom and Trevian, using his newly-discovered magical powers, rescues her. Ilsanja began, slowly, to swim into focus for me; she is drugged and abducted, but she’s not a passive damsel-in-distress, and once rescued, her intelligence and observational skills help Trevian and the sheriff identify the mastermind. The rescue doesn’t bring Trevian and her closer together, though. It cements Trevian’s decision to go where his magical ability takes him.

The two of them have an argument at the end of the story, and it’s only then that I really got a handle on Ilsanja. First of all, she acknowledges that Trevian saved her, and she’s not grudging about it. Then she goes on to say that he is a fool for leaving her.

“You don’t value me,” she says. And click! I knew who Ilsanja was.

She’s a woman who knows her own worth. Ilsanja is not a vapid social-climber. In fact, she’d not a social climber at all. Me typifying her that was at the beginning of the story was creative laziness. Ilsanja is near the top of the hierarchical heap in her society already and she knows it. There’s nowhere she needs to climb. She has a specific skill-set. She plans to put it into practice building a life and position for Trevian and herself, but Trevian’s vision doesn’t match hers. I might not have liked Ilsanja’s values, but she had some, and they were deeper than “must have this year’s stylish hat.” I may not have agreed with her goals, but she had goals, and Trevian’s actions create a crisis in her life just as much as they do in his. She is a secondary character, but in that argument scene I think I did capture the moment when she sees that her toolkit won’t work in this situation, gives up trying to persuade him, and moves on.

Now it’s years later, and Ilsanja is major character in the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. The way she and Trevian broke up was a thread in the first book and in the second, circumstances – another crisis—throw them together again. Ilsanja has moved beyond Trevian, though. Her teenaged “hobby” of raising trail horses had become a profitable business for her; she’s weathered (mostly) the scandal of being dumped and is still a social leader. And she is a woman who knows the worth of things. Now, as a better-realized character, she must decide whether helping Trevian and his family is worth the embarrassment and battered pride she risks by doing it. This creates genuine emotional suspense (at least it does to me, and I hope it will in the book.)

I’m so glad she said that line!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *