Henry James once wrote, “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
And his brother, the philosopher William James wrote, in discussing the activity of the mind and its ready interpretations: “Let a person enter his room in the dark and grope among the objects there.”
In both cases, we might imagine a dark room where the mind is at work, seeking to discover hidden things, learning about a world which is as yet unseen. When writing fiction, creating worlds and plot, I myself am working in the dark room—or sometimes casting fishing lines out into dark lakes—but that process becomes especially intimate when exploring the inner worlds of my characters. The metaphor of the dark room is the most apt for me, rather than, say, molding characters from clay, or building them up with bricks. The characters don’t seem to be my creations so much as people I am trying to get to know.
When developing characters, we must learn everything we can about the external world in which they live, and what circumstances, just or unjust, are wrought upon them. Equally, or more so, we have to know how they react, or fail to, in conjunction with events. The external event gives rise to an internal reaction, which gives rise to an externalized action, which then shapes the events. Stuff goes in, stuff comes out, in and out like water through the gills of a fish, and each character is his or her own type of filter. To find out about the filter, it helps to ask some pertinent questions:
1. What is my character’s historical context?
This question is most obvious when writing historical fiction but equally applies to writing that exists in the contemporary era. Within the general historical context, we must ask, what is this person’s position? What powers and privileges do they have and not have? What are the economic and social rules that bind them? In light of these rules, does the character bend? Do they rebel? Do they exploit?
In my novel House of Rougeaux, the character Guillaume Rougeaux, an upstanding family man, who is black and living in Montreal in the 1800s, is also gay. He lives by the rules of his time and builds his life accordingly, until a break in his world allows an unexpressed part of himself to flower. Between that break and that flowering, he goes through a tremendous struggle, the nature of which I had to discover little by little. Being gay in a time and place that does not allow such things will naturally create a conflict, internal to be sure, and usually external also. But the specific nature of the internal struggle could be composed of many different things, and I had to learn very precisely what it was for Guillaume that caused the conflict. (For more on this, see question 3.)
2. What relationships are most key in my character’s life?
These may be the people they are closest to, or may be people they have lost. House of Rougeaux has seven protagonists, and for some of them the most important relationships are with siblings. For Eleanor Rougeaux, one of Guillaume’s daughters, the loss of her mother, when Eleanor is only twelve years old, plays a direct role in her unfortunate involvement with a man, a music teacher, several years later. Eleanor’s inner world is formed by the “hole in her heart” left by the death of her mother, which manifests as a hole in her judgment and a possibly tragic mistake.
3. What are my character’s blind spots?
Everyone has blind spots that give rise to the conflicts in their life, so it is vital to identify what these are in our characters. As the character grows in the context of the story, and grows in self-awareness, this process will lead to the resolution. In its duration, and then dissolution, the blind spot is both lock and key.
What turns out to be a critical blind spot for Guillaume lies in his view of his father as the model for what it means to be a good man. Though his father, Dax Rougeaux, is indeed a good man, and worthy of Guillaume’s high opinion, the truth is that Guillaume is not his father. The unconscious piece in Guillaume’s regard for his father’s goodness, is the belief that his father’s way is the only way to be good—a belief that a child might easily internalize. As an adult, a person might never come to a point where he is at odds with such a belief, because circumstances might not demand any conflict there. In Guillaume’s case, when he finds his heart pulled toward another man in a way that is wholly incongruous with himself in his father’s image, the conflict ensues. Guillaume is lucky to have a close relationship with his unusual sister, Josephine, who helps to illuminate, and thus to shatter, the place where Guillaume is indeed blind.
4. How does the inner life come through the body?
Though personality will likely dominate the descriptive landscape of a character, every character must very intimately live through their physical body. Sex, childbirth, eating, violence, illness, physical sensation related to climate, work and all activity, all of these tell us things about our character’s experience of their body and their life.
One of Guillaume’s descendants, his great-granddaughter, Rosalie Hubbard, is someone the reader gets to know as a teenager, in 1960s Philadelphia. Unlike her glamorous older sister, Loretta, who in beauty and sense of style takes after their mother, Rosalie is a bit of a nerd. She does very well in school, but doesn’t stand out socially, and she is only pretty in “a quiet way” as her mother says. But despite being bookish, and though it doesn’t attract attention from boys, Rosalie happens to be a good dancer; dancing is one of the ways she experiences her body and her nascent sensuality. Rosalie’s dancing is a minor detail in her story, it’s not a plot driver, but it tells us something important about her. You can’t put her in a box, for one thing. This girl is full of surprises, and, as one might infer, as she matures, the person she will most surprise will be herself.
5. How is my character truly unique?
The closer we can get to our character’s uniqueness, the stronger our representation of them will become. It’s not enough to say that Guillaume Rougeaux is unique because he is gay, though that is part of his uniqueness. He is gay in different ways from his love interest, Francis Hathaway, for example, who suffered beatings as a boy for being effeminate—something that Guillaume never experienced himself. In conversation at an inn the two men discover a common passion for cultivating fruit trees, though they differ on which fruit is truly superior. Also, Guillaume enjoys billiards, which he is very good at, because he is naturally mechanically inclined, a feature that parallels his practical approach to life and even his broad physical frame. Francis hates billiards, and internally rejects it as another pointless manly ritual. He plays only “when forced,” conducting textile business with clients.
Far from fruit trees and billiards, Eleanor’s passion is music, specifically playing classical piano, a pursuit that shapes the whole of her life. This is specific, but not specific enough. We need to know how she is different from other women with a similar passion, and what her relationship is to music and to her instrument. Eleanor is not an outwardly, emotionally passionate person, especially after the disastrous involvement with the music teacher, she learns to wall herself off from any man who might be romantically inclined, and she even distances herself from her family. But she is very deeply connected to her music. She faces a piano with a quiet but intense kind of attack, and the music feels electric to her.
The process by which we get to know our characters will undoubtedly be different for each writer. It’s a very intimate relationship that we may discover in that dark room of our imagination, or whatever that mysterious place is where our characters and stories emerge. In C.S. Lewis’ classic tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, my favorite part was always, hands down, the wardrobe itself, that singular location where the ordinary world suddenly meets the extraordinary. Whatever story you yourself are on, and whatever characters you are getting to know, I wish you luck in that magical passage.