There are days when I know exactly what I’m going to blog about and others when I let chance take over and give me a prompt. Today is a prompt day. Going through the latest updates on the WordPress blogs I subscribe to, I found atwulf’s post: Pre-writing and Planning: Building Characters. The method he talks about is probably a good way to start for a lot of writers, especially if they’re new to fiction. It gives something concrete, a solid basis to work from. Basically, it’s about starting by choosing the right name, and then working out a list of personal characteristics.
Personally, that strikes me as too mechanical, too much along the lines of choose from column A and put it in slot B. I agree that a character’s name can tell you a lot about him (but not always or necessarily), but to my way of thinking, if you want to give a character a name that resonates, you have to know him first. Or her.
The names I start with are usually just convenient handles so I can tell one character from another. Once in a while, the right name just pops out as soon as I start thinking about a character, but it doesn’t happen too often. Finding the right names for my characters usually doesn’t happen until I know them better. And I get to know them mostly by seeing how they behave, react, think as the story develops. The personal characteristics also come out of that knowledge. That way, I don’t spend my time inventing characteristics that may be totally irrelevant. Why bother with the color of his eyes, where he went to school, whether or not he’s married, or what his favorite food is, if they don’t matter to the story or how he functions in it? I’ll gladly grant that for many stories, maybe even most of them, those details may help the writer stay in tune with the character even if they’re never revealed to readers.
But that kind of pre-planning isn’t a hard and fast rule. If you’re thrashing around, trying to figure out how to write the darned story, it can give you a place to start. After you’ve written more than one or two stories and are beginning to find your own style, you might want to abandon it for something that fits you better.