Care and Feeding of Characters

by | May 14, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Creating Characters, The Great American Desert

Fictional characters are not the reliable servants people sometimes take them for. Not real characters, anyway. Not ones in character-based fiction. With the other kind, plot-based, they tend to get short-changed. They’re pushed around sometimes like chess pieces. But real characters need to walk around for a while, say and do and think about things for a while, try things out, just like actors do while preparing roles. They don’t spring from your head fully born, at least mine don’t. I start with some themes, and then a setting suggests itself, and then some characters walk in, and now that they’ve had a couple of hours of story time together the characters that passed the audition are fleshing themselves out. And I’m understanding more about what makes them tick, and how they’ll say and do things, and how they’ll think.

One of the characters in the current work in progress has been some kind of frisky this morning, and that’s a good thing because it sure helps things to flow. You don’t want to have to shove your characters around. If you’ve set things up right, they’ll go where you need them to of their own free will, but they’ll do it their own way. And this young lady is really becoming interesting.

The wallflower is starting to come out of his shell, too, which is a good thing. He’s been distracted, and will be for a while longer, but I caught him off guard today and he spilled some useful beans.


Real characters grow. Daffy Duck, for example, first showed up in 1937 in a Tex Avery short called Porky’s Duck Hunt. Note that he doesn’t even get name billing. In this first appearance he was just a foil for Porky, something to shoot at. He was daffy, larfing it up like a loon and doing cwazy stuff.   Hoo-hoo! Characters used to stop by Termite Terrace all the time, strut and fret their minutes upon the stage, never to be heard the more, but Daffy hung around, and played in more shorts, and the more parts he played the richer grew his shtick. He was now the protagonist, and success went to his head, brought out the radical self-centeredness that is so much a part of the mature Daffy.  When Bugs surpassed him in popularity, he grew yet more cunning and dastardly for all the good it did him, and his speeches got better, too.


Desert taught me a lot about the funny things characters will do. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, that story kept shutting down, no matter how much I worked at it and polished it, at exactly the same spot, which was where I wanted the characters to do things that they, as it turned out, didn’t want to do. You create them, but you can’t always control them without yanking on the strings, which never looks good, so you have to set things up so you’ll never have to yank. So far, in the current project everybody is doing what he’s supposed to, so maybe I’ve got this one set up right.