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On Characters, Knowing Them

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So I’ve realized that I have to make a conscious effort not to start every single blog post with "so." No, seriously, if you look back through my blog archives, I suspect I have more so-ing than a farmer. Considering that I’m not exactly sure "so" used in that context even has a meaning, that’s impressive.


I was thinking last night that I really ought to talk more about what I meant about knowing characters, because I had this sudden image of dozens of blog readers starting on long and involved character histories including hair color and back story and parental jobs and how many fingers they had on each hand.

This is not what I meant about knowing my characters.

Oftentimes when I start a novel, I have no idea what a character looks like. I might not know if they work. I might not know if they live with both parents. I might not know their last name, exactly how old they are, whether they have a dog named Snookie or a hamster named Chainsaw. Of course, I’ll figure these things out as I write, but before I start, the things I need to know inside and out about my characters are only the things that bring them into conflict with the plot and other characters. I need to know what they want out of life so I can deprive them of it. I need to know what their mortal flaw is so they can struggle to overcome it. I need to know who they love so I can turn that person into a wolf and laugh meanly.

A lot of times, this has very little to do with eye color or whether or not they need to wear platform heels to meet the height requirements on most roller coasters. I need to know them on a deep, thematic level.

*maggie searches for an example*

Okay, I have one. So when I started Shiver, I knew that the big conflict for Sam was that he was losing his humanity, and in order to make it an interesting story, I needed him to be a very HUMAN human. I wanted him to be in love with things that people did that animals couldn’t. Something creative, something that would make the reader genuinely disappointed that he couldn’t pursue. I knew all this about Sam before I started writing.

I figured probably I’d make him obsessed with movies.

Yeah. Well, so obviously I didn’t go that route. But it’s worth pointing out that something that is hugely important to Sam — his music, his lyrics — wasn’t something I knew going in to the book. That doesn’t mean, though, that I didn’t know what drove him. I just didn’t know the specifics. It’s better that way than the other way around.

I guess what I’m trying to emphasize is that, as a writer, our job is the big picture. The wire coat hanger skeleton. You can always change the color of the clay you stick on the arms later. It’s the skeleton you need, so you know how many limbs they have and whether they walk on two feet or all fours (as a werewolf author, maybe this is a bad metaphor to make). So if you’re out there frantically checking out play-doh colors after my advice to know your characters, put the lids back on and go get the coat hangers instead. Big! Think big! It’s really easy to get enmeshed in the details while both writing and editing. Big swathes first, then refine.

Wipe on, wipe off.

Because I just had to get one more analogy in there.

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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Copyright 2012