Wednesday, June 3, 2009

HOW I WRITE — PART 1: CHARACTER BIBLES

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My first novel was published in 2006. My third came out this year, and I just finished writing my fourth. Four books. Not bad for a guy who wanted to write a book all his life and didn’t get around to it till he was mmmmphty years old.

I realize there are a lot of writers out there who are just as scared as I was, but a lot younger, so I thought a little encouragement might help. I can’t tell you how to write. But I can tell you how I write.

I start with characters. Yes, I know — plot, story, dialogue — all important. But I think characters drive the bus. It’s something I learned in the television business. People keep coming back week after week because they want the Predictable Emotional Experience they get from reuniting with the characters.

It can take me weeks to shape a principal character. This is somebody I have to live with for a long time. Can I get inside this character’s head? Can he get inside of mine? Most of my lead characters are kind of ordinary. Just like most people. I don’t have to give them super powers or a crack addiction to make them interesting. But I have to figure out what about their backgrounds, their dreams, or their life experience does make them interesting.

So I write a character bible. The one I wrote for Mike Lomax five years ago has about a dozen pages. I knew how old I wanted him to be in the first book, so I did the math, and figured out when he was born. Not the same time as I was. Mike grew up in a different America than I grew up in. I watched Leave it to Beaver. He had Archie Bunker. We grew up in the same country, but with different politics, different values, different pop culture, different everything.

I started conjuring up his childhood, his relationship with his parents, his teenage years, how, when, and why he decided to become a cop, how he met his wife Joanie, their struggle with infertility, and how he coped with his wife’s illness and her death. When you meet him for the first time in The Rabbit Factory, all you know is that he’s a cop whose wife died six months ago. But I knew a lot more. I just wasn’t going to regurgitate all that information in the first chapter. When you need to know something, I’ll let you know through dialogue or action.

When I was in the TV business, there were times when an actor would say to me, “my character would never say that.” And they’d always be right. If you want to become a television writer you have to write spec scripts. Take a well-established show, and write your own episode. The producers who read it will be looking at how fresh your ideas are, how crisp your dialogue is, but most important, how true you are to the essence of the characters they’ve created.

One of my favorite characters of all time is Superman. Despite the fact that he can fly, see through walls, or catch a bullet in his bare hands, he’s a totally believable character. Because his creators gave him powers, weaknesses, a mission, and a personality — and for the past 70 years, they stuck to it.

Bottom line — in my opinion characters shape the book, and a well-developed character bible shapes the character.