Who is your character? (How We Write.)

Here’s a secret: I don’t have a clue what Virginia Kate’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. If I thought about it, maybe I’d have her go into the ice cream parlor and she’d step up to the counter and she’d order a . . . *kat thinks* . . . chocolate dipped cone. There. She doesn’t like pistachio like I do. She’d eat strawberry, though, yeah; we both like strawberry with real chunks of strawberries in there.

Sometimes authors make detailed “character sketches.” They know their characters so well, up to the minutetednest detail—their favorite foods, their favorite movies, how they look from the top of their head to the souls of their feet—every detail about their physical appearance. They know every like and dislike, every nuance, every place the character has been or worked or gone to school, etc etc etc.

When I first began writing fiction, I thought there was This Way I was supposed to write and think and do and be, and if I wasn’t This Way, then I wasn’t a Real Writer. I might as well have put thick gloves on my hands and tried to write that way. For thinking “what we are supposed to do” versus “what is comfortable and real and instinctual” for us creates boundaries where there should be free space.

For me personally, when it comes to character, I learned I have to discover my character(s) as I write, and even in that discovering, just as it is with meeting real people, I never know every detail about them, and may never ever know every detail. Even now, with two Virginia Kate (Graces) books written, I am still discovering who Virginia Kate is. If I have an ice cream scene, that’s when I find out what flavor she chooses and likes (chocolate dipped cone or Strawberry! Now I know!). Maybe she’ll talk about her favorite movie and then again, maybe she doesn’t have one or doesn’t know herself or doesn’t care. I know she loves books, and has a special place for her Black Stallion and Black Beauty books, but what does she read as an adult? Well, I don’t know yet. She hasn’t had time to read because she’s going through her families’ archives (their letters, journals, photos) and storytelling their lives.

Writers love to give advice—heck, that’s what I’m doing here. We do it because we want to tell you “it’s all okay; really!;” we want to support you and help you; we want to give you guidance; we want to perhaps make things a bit easier on you where we had to muddle our way through; and we want to talk about the craft, the language, because it is important to us and we love it so.

How you write; how the process is for you is an individual decision. If you like to discover your character as you go along, or if you like to write detailed character descriptions, or somewhere in between—who can tell you/us which is “right or wrong” because no way is “right or wrong.” If you read how a writer does his or her thing and then you try to duplicate that and in that trying to duplicate you hit wall after wall—your character becomes wooden, or doesn’t seem real to you, or something just isn’t right about this character dang it all!—then take off the gloves and feel the flexing of your own fingers, the feel of the keys, the freedom of ungloved hands.

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