Q: When you write about characters, do you figure out their full history beforehand, or figure it out as you go along? I find I can write about some characters just discovering them along the way, but non-main characters are harder. I’m inventing their past as I write, but when I put that stuff into conversation, it feels random and irrelevant. But the same thing happens when I plan it out. It gets all muddled.
A: That’s a really good question.
First, there’s degrees of character development, which I’m sure you know. Characters like the protagonist are well-developed with rich personalities and backgrounds; the waitress who brings coffee on page 47 doesn’t need much detail. (In fact, too much detail on an unimportant character can distract the reader.) So you’re finding that your supporting characters–who should be nearly as well-developed as the protagonist–come out muddled.
It’s great that you recognize the problem. Muddled is a perfect word. What’s happening is that your creative side is muddling the brainstorming process with the drafting process. You’re more interested in discovering your characters than developing the story.
There’s nothing wrong with that. You have to know your characters intimately–and in a sense your characters are your story. The trick is to do some brainstorming in advance–before you even touch your first draft. Interview all your main characters and secondary characters before you start. Here’s an example of what to ask them. “Listen” to your characters and let them surprise you. Write down notes.
In your interviews, you’ll discover some odd things–like that Uncle Joe spent a year hitchhiking through Europe, but told his mother that he was going to school. “Wow,” you think to yourself, “that’s interesting, but has nothing to do with my novel.”
Now that your brain’s had the joy of discovery, it’ll settle down nicely when you draft the work.
If you’re brainstorming in advance and still having muddled characters, then it means you’re not thinking broadly enough. You’re trying too hard to make the character fill a specific role in your story, rather than just being himself. People are a weird mix of contradictions and irrelevancies. They do things that aren’t “good for the story” all the time. Let’s say a supporting character’s role is to argue with the protagonist about why she shouldn’t leave her hometown for a distant college. That argument might be his focus–but he’s got a lot of other things on his mind, too. He’s wondering if his team will win the Super Bowl, perhaps. Maybe he’s secretly in love with your protagonist but afraid to tell her. He doesn’t need to tell her–but that emotion will influence everything he says. Maybe he’ll try to distract her from her college decision with small talk about the upcoming game. He won’t say he loves her, but he might talk about how much fun they had together at the last Super Bowl party. In other words–he exists for more than just the arguments.
You should be able to rewrite the scene from his perspective, as if he were the protagonist–including his motivations and desires. If you can’t, you didn’t do enough work in step 1 with brainstorming. Go back and try again.
In short: Muddled characters means you need to get to know them better. Remember that people are always more than they seem in some way.