Channeling Characters

Character week continues on WU . . .

I’m a pantser; I write the story to discover what it is—and who it’s about. For example, in the opening scene of my first novel I had a couple of punks assault a young woman in order to show my protagonist’s prowess in dealing with violence. That was her sole purpose—she was a “spear carrier.”

But she followed the protagonist to thank him, and then became the co-protagonist in the novel. She was completely unplanned, and I’m glad she stepped up the way she did.

Channeling a character is about opening your inner doors and letting the character step out without you pre-defining most of his or her character traits—appearance, politics, shoe size, quirks, past, likes and dislikes, all the things that make up a person. It could be that all that stuff is already there, in your subconscious, and only needs a turn of the latch to make an appearance. That’s how it worked for me in the novel above, and in others.

I know that some pundits advise writing a thorough character biography with a list of as many character traits as possible, and it may be that doing so calls upon the same kind of subconscious mining that channeling does. If that works for you, fine. I’ve always resisted it.

Can channeling be better in some way?

For some writers, at least this one, channeling allows a character’s characteristics to surface in the context of a scene. A scene’s action evokes the characteristics a character needs to deal with it, and those characteristics guide the action. For me, this interaction between characteristics and story can’t happen in the process of simply listing them.

Here’s an example drawn from another novel. Before I put fingers on keyboard to write the scene that introduced this character, I “knew” only this:

• the character’s name and his role as an antagonist

• that he was a leader of a clan of people like him

• that he was inside a vehicle in which he traveled and lived

• that the outside of the vehicle was wooden– I didn’t even know what kind of vehicle he was in

• that he was in a forest preserve outside of Chicago in wintertime.

And that was it. I didn’t know what he looked like, nor did I know any of the details about the other things in that list. No description; no psychology other than his desire to eliminate humankind, and even then only half the real reason why; no list of likes and dislikes. I had no idea of what the room he was in was like.

Pretty much a tabula rasa. Here is the earliest draft I could find of what I wrote, and although it is richer in detail than the true first draft, it all stems from my process of discovery via channeling. I’m going to cut big chucks of narrative so you’ll just see the description of the character and his environment that I discovered. Note: “lledri” is an old Celtic word for “magic.”

Drago slides a blue velvet curtain aside and peers out a porthole in his galleon’s quarterdeck cabin. Though the morning is well past dawn, the light is dim, of a piece with the gray sky. With distaste, he eyes the sparse snowflakes that fall on the barren trees and snow-covered forest floor surrounding the half-acre clearing where his ship rests.

Within view are the tall, curved hulls of three of his clan’s twelve vessels, sixteenth-century Spanish ships long gone from the high seas. Their glossy wooden flanks provide a warm contrast to the dull, gray-brown bark of the trees that surround the snow-bound meadow. He has never been partial to the supports that, like the legs of daddy longlegs spiders, angle out from lower decks to hold them upright while their keels rest on the forest floor, but there was no better way to park a sharp-keeled ship on land.

(snip)

Drago shivers, closes the curtain against the draft, and gathers enough lledri to increase his personal warmth. Warm light from kerosene lamps gives the impression of comfort, but despite woolen Oriental carpets insulating the hardwood floor and the heavy oaken wall panels, the cabin is unpleasantly chilly. He’s tempted by the pot-bellied woodstove in the corner, but a column of smoke couldn’t be hidden, and the danger of discovery is too great this close to a lessi city acrawl with people like maggots in a carcass.

Drago gazes at a scene from clan history a master craftsman has carved into the nearest wall panel, a portrait of his direct ancestor, Merlin, deep in conversation with King Arthur. The artist portrayed Merlin as tall and lean, with a handsome beard that reaches his chest. Drago wishes he looked like the carving instead of sporting the balding, plump appearance he associates with a ruddy-cheeked butcher in a small-town grocery store. He suspects that the real Merlin looked much like he does, and the majesty portrayed on the panel is no more than imagination at work.

(snip)

He strokes his moustache, the one thing he has in common with the carved image. His is still dark brown, as is what remains of his hair. If only he had found his key to rejuvenation before he reached his thirties and his scalp had become a barren pink dome rising above a low hedge of hair. That he’s stuck with his looks for the rest of his days–unless he decides to allow himself to age–is one of life’s minor irritants.

I swear to you that before I sat down to write, I didn’t know that he was bald and pudgy, and a little vain. I did add things later. For example, he was totally one-dimensional at this point, all rage and bent on revenge for the death of his son. I added a couple of elements to his character to humanize him—his concern for clan children, and his affection for two blue jays that he had trained—and those were deliberate. But most of the things that put flesh on this character were, well, “received.”

Sometimes they talk to you

For a time, when I moved to a new job, I commuted most weekends across the state of Washington, about 5 hours one way. I’d been toying with an idea for a new twist on the vampire genre, a vampire kitty-cat. But how to tell the story? I really didn’t know where to begin until, on one of those drives, the character’s voice entered my head and started telling me his story. His first words were,

Just after dark, death grabbed me by the tail.

Honest, that’s what came into my mind. In a way, after a little preliminary thought about aspects of the world this character inhabited, but very little planning, the character pretty much dictated his story to me, one episode per week. I’d sit down at the computer, re-read the last week’s episode, and then “listen” to what happened next.

I channeled “catness,” too—my character’s voice has an arch, sorta smart-ass quality to which cat people say, “Yep, that’s the way a cat is.” So my subconscious, apparently, contains a cat. (Hmm. Does that mean there’s a litter box in there, too?)

That novel is currently on Authonomy and was recently requested by an editor at a U.S. publishing house after a fan wrote to her and pitched it. Sometimes it pays to listen.

If you haven’t channeled a character, can it work for you? There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers, but you might find it fun to try.

If you’re just starting a project and a character is just beginning in your mind, sit down and write a scene through his or her point of view. See what you can discover. Try for an organic way to become aware of his or her appearance (NOT standing in front of a mirror!) and characteristics.

For what it’s worth.

Image by =April1.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    “For some writers, at least this one, channeling allows a character’s characteristics to surface in the context of a scene.”

    YES! exactly. This is why I like to keep it loose, because you never know what they want to do until you get them there. Glad to know I’m not the only one who does this, Ray!

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  2. says

    Ray, you’ve done a great job here of explaining the process for people who might not already be writing this way. Thanks for the post!

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  3. says

    Nice post. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resisted putting pants to chair because I’d been told that I needed to know everything about my characters *before* writing the story.

    For me, that is the perfect way to kill creativity.

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  4. says

    I struggled for years with writing because all the books said you must plan everything out in advance. Then I read a biography of Tolkien and discovered he was a “Pantser”. When he wrote the Lord of the Rings he had a general idea that he wanted Bilbo’s ring to play a central role, and he wanted it to be a quest story. But that was about it. One particular thing I remember was when Frodo met Strider for the first time, Tolkien had no idea who Strider was. He just needed someone to guide the hobbits because Gandalf had disappeared for reasons that again Tolkien didn’t know.

    What an amazing revelation this was to me. Sure in the end it probably requires more revision, but to me it is well worth it. There is nothing better than to discover along the way who people are, and what they mean to the story.

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  5. Donna says

    This is a great description of the process. I don’t know what I *need* from a character until I see him/her in action, and if I try to script them too much, they balk.

    Characters are like people in real life: they reveal what they want you to see, and what they want you to know about them, and on their own schedule. Trying to figure out too much ahead of time leads to frustration, esp. when they take a detour and act — God forbid! — “out of character”.

    Thanks — great article.

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  6. says

    Those character building worksheets never tell me what I need to know about a character. I find I learn much more about them when I see them in action.

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  7. Rachael says

    Sometimes I feel like I’m not actually writing I’m just telling someone else’s story. It’s great when your characters just seem to take you off in a totally different direction, even if it’s different from the one you wanted to go in.

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  8. Dennis says

    I’m in total agrement. There is nothing more thrilling than to have a charcater pop up without an invitation and inevitably that character becomes the most interesting.

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  9. says

    It’s great as long as the characters don’t invite all their friends and relations to be in the book, too. One book of mine, that will remain forever in the computer, wound up with over a hundred characters, seventeen of whom insisted they were entitled to POV. What a schmozzle – I’ve learnt to be more circumspect now. If a character suddenly turns up with a friend in tow, I say firmly, “No way! Tell your friend to stand by and if I need him I’ll call his agent.”:-)

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  10. says

    Yes, indeed.
    The whole process of writing, for me, is to take these characters, who start out their lives as names and very little else, and try to ‘figure out’ what they’ll do, how they’ll respond to the other events of the story.

    Many of my characters pop up literally at the drop of a hat. In my last novel, St. Martin’s Moon, the Communications Officer, who becomes a love interest and a crucial component of the resolution of the major plot of the story, didn’t exist until the hero turned around and saw her. It makes for a better story, but sometimes it comes out indescribable. I gave up trying to write a query letter for SMM, because I couldn’t synopsize the damn thing. The whole book was characters pursuing their own goals, which all worked to bring about a result that none of them could have foreseen but that all of them wanted, without any one single plot being the dominant thread of the book.

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