SPEC Revisited (Part 2)
No, not multiple personality disorder – I’m talking about the fictional characters that exist in the imaginary landscape in my mind. I’ve written about how the premise for a story is a seed and how its genes contain the essential information describing the elements of the story. But those aren’t disparate pieces that need to be fit together, they’re parts of a whole, integral to each other’s existence.
In that same way, a character isn’t a set of attributes or a list of experiences, but one complete, organic personality. Just as I discover a story, I search for the character who lives it (rather than try to assemble someone from various parts.) Then when I find that person, I try to get to know them.
When I begin asking the basic questions that give shape to the premise, there don’t seem to be any characters at first. But they’re there, vague outlines, shapes in the mist. With Slowpocalypse, as soon as I wondered what if there were people who, rather than fighting to save a civilization already crumbling, focused on surviving the collapse to build a new society out of the inevitable rubble – right there in the premise is a person already defined. Someone who would look at the bigger picture and choose to go down a road other people weren’t traveling, with a longer-range perspective. And as I explored the premise of how civilization might fall apart and how someone might seek to accomplish such a goal, the person who would make those decisions (and the people who would help execute them) came into clearer view.
Eventually I could see several characters as specific individuals with names and jobs and experiences that led them to their unique roles in the story. But as with people we read about or see in the news, I didn’t really know them. I just knew about them.
Many people who are peripheral to the plot remain mostly strangers to me, though I get to know them a bit better through interacting with them as I develop the story and write it. As a general rule, the more time I spend with someone, the better I tend to understand them. But just as in the real world, people are different. Some characters are more closed off and harder to get to know, while others are (or seem to be) more open and easier to relate to.
But even the most mysterious individual becomes a close companion when you spend time inside their head, and that’s what happens when I write a scene from someone’s POV, seeing the world through their eyes and hearing what they think and feeling what they feel. That bond of empathy is how a tight third-person point-of view gets written. And it’s why I doubt you’ll ever see me write a main character who’s a real villain or even really unpleasant. Because I don’t want to spend time intimately involved with such a person.
So, the characters in my stories come to me made out of whole cloth as a part of the premise, which also makes them an integral feature of that imaginary landscape in which they live. And that very environment is also an important part of who they are.
Part 3: Is the Environment or the Economy Most Important?