Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Sarah Gailey. Gailey is a Bay Area native and an unabashed bibliophile, living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. She enjoys painting, baking, vulgar embroidery, and writing stories about murder and monsters. She livetweeted Star Wars and the internet got very excited about it, but mostly she writes short SFF and horror. Her fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and The Colored Lens, and is pending publication in lots of other places. You can find links to her work at her website. She tweets @gaileyfrey.
My favorite stories to read are the ones that have layers and levels and lots of lovely details to unfold. These stories are always character-driven — that is to say, they are always guided by the needs and choices of the characters. I’m currently rereading HARRY POTTER for what I would conservatively estimate to be the billionth time; I know these books like my brain knows the inside of my skull. I am the reigning, merciless champion of HP Trivia. But I still find new character stories to explore all the time.
For example, I’m currently rereading Book One — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — and I just realized that Hagrid is constantly drinking. For the uninitiated, Hagrid is the groundskeeper at Hogwarts; he was expelled in his third year and is forbidden from using magic. Also, for the uninitiated, go read Harry Potter already, what’s wrong with you.
Every time that Hagrid is around the bits of Hogwarts that delight and astonish young Harry Potter, Hagrid drinks. When Hagrid delivers Harry’s acceptance letter, he takes a nip out of a flask. When he takes Harry to get fitted for school robes, Hagrid stops into the Leaky Cauldron for a pick-me-up. At the back-to-school feast, Hagrid is drinking deeply from his goblet as the first-years sing the school song. J.K. Rowling never explores or explains the drinking, but she always mentions it.
Here’s what I think: Hagrid loves Hogwarts, with all his massive heart — but he was expelled. So he watches every year as the magic in which he can’t participate unfolds to children who taunt him; children who will rapidly outstrip his own education. And he drinks to dull the pain of his stagnancy.
That’s pretty dark shit for Book One! And maybe it’s not what the great and powerful J.K. Rowling intended. But I just spent 194 words on a new idea I had about the emotional state of a secondary character in a series of books I’ve been reading and rereading for nearly twenty years now. And that’s because J.K. writes her characters deep. In doing so, she writes her world deep. She doesn’t stop at the surface; her characters are written in a way that ensures that the world they inhabit is sturdy enough to support a complex plot.
Worldbuilding is tricky. When I’m reading a book, too much explicit worldbuilding leaves me incredibly bored. I confess to skimming certain sections of books: here’s-how-the-magic-works, or wouldn’t-you-like-to-learn-about-quantum-mechanics. I skim when these sections are explained by the narrator. But I never, ever skim when well-written characters are showing those same concepts to the reader. As a writer, I strive to emulate that compelling worldbuilding in my own work.
To wallow in metaphor for a moment: You could build a house painstakingly, tell your reader all about what it looks like down to the wainscoting, and then let them look at it appreciatively. Or, you can let your reader follow a character into the house; the character will show them the hallways that matter — including some that you didn’t even realize were there.
As a reader and as a writer, I prefer the latter method of worldbuilding. I may never be an author of J.K. Rowling’s caliber, but I can still strive to give the worlds I build in my stories depth and nuance, like she does. To do so, I base my stories on well-built characters. I draw on my theatre background for this — without going to far into my acting resume, I studied at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts and spent several years running a performance venue and working with long-form improv legend Kenn Adams. The things I learned from the brilliant people I worked and studied with during that time come in handy when I decide to build a character (I’ll be sharing some of those tools with you later). Using those tools, I construct those characters, give them a couple of loose instructions, and then set them to work. As a character defines the world she inhabits, she also frequently shows me her story. In this way, character-building, world-building, and plot-building occur seamlessly and simultaneously.
So, how do you make characters that will do this hard work for you? Here’s the first, most important step:
Make the Character Real
This is how I start every single one of my stories. I decide that I want to write about, say, a time-travelling vampire named Reynard, and then I let him develop the story for me. I’ve already written Reynard’s story, so it would be cheating to use that for this column; instead, we’ll start from scratch and work our way through developing a character-driven story. Let’s try it out together.
First, abandon the idea that your character is a tool that you can use however you want. Instead, think of your character as a person. Unless your story goes birth-to-death, your character should have a past from before the story began, and a future after it ends, and feelings about all of that. You don’t have to write all of that out — if you do, you’re more dedicated than I. This step is just about accepting that your character is more than the story you write about them, and understanding that they’re going to be driving your story forward through their real, lived experiences. Pretty straightforward, right?
Let’s take an example of a pretty common character: woman, middle-aged, in a failing marriage, gonna have an affair. We’ve all either written about her or read about her. She needs a name, because real people have names — so we’ll call her Betsy. Maybe Betsy’s husband is a high-powered jerk, or maybe he’s just a schmuck — either way, she’s over him, and she’s lookin’ for some strange.
But is that all she’s got going on? She’s married and doesn’t like it and she’s going to have an affair? That’s a pretty shallow character; she’s not a real person yet, with a life outside of the story we’re writing for her. She has no point of view. Nothing is driving her decisions or her actions, beyond the choices that we as the writers of her story make for her. A character like that needs their world totally defined for them, down to the last detail — otherwise they’ll just wander around aimlessly in a pit of self-reflection. A character like that has no narrative autonomy. Instead of that, let’s have Betsy build the world and the story for us. Let’s give her some depth!
In the next column in this series, I’ll discuss how to provide your character with the depth they need to carry the story on their own — leaving you, the author, with lots of time to tinker with language, explore new narrative styles, and drink margaritas. See you in Part 2!