You can start a book by sitting down and writing, letting the words go where your imagination takes you. That’s the way I’ve written in the past, and it’s worked for me. While that will still work during the writing of my novel, (thankfully, because the unfolding of the imagination is one of my favorite parts of writing), I couldn’t start it that way. Just like climbing a mountain, when you’re writing a mystery, there are tools you need to begin.
To write this book, I needed structure. I needed to know about the plot. I needed to know about things I never needed to know before. And I needed to know my characters before setting them loose on the page.
I’m walking around with people’s lives in my head now. They’re not real people, but they have to be real enough to me so that I can write about them. And real enough so that when someone reads about these people on the page, they will be able to suspend their disbelief enough to believe that these characters could and would do what they’re doing. Otherwise, they would just seem like figments of someone’s imagination.
Oh wait. They are. But they are my figments, and I need to know them in order to write them.
My approach to knowing my characters has been to ask questions and answer them. I had an idea about my main character would be. I asked myself questions about who he is, what he likes, what he does, what he doesn’t do. People have boundaries in life that decide what they will and won’t do. Characters need boundaries too. Creating a brief bio about him not only helped me understand who he is, but who he isn’t.
Some writers put together extensive, birth-to-present biographies of their characters before ever writing a sentence. That doesn’t work for me. I want to get to the writing. I don’t think I need to know everything about my characters to write them. In fact, I know that in the process of writing, more of who they are will be revealed to me. If I find that a character who’s jumping off a wall really wouldn’t jump off a ten-foot wall, I can make the wall a little lower. Or I can challenge my character to do it, and then write about the conflict that ensues within him.
I also needed to think of the people in his life. Asking and answering more questions gave me some ideas about those whose presence will and will not be in the book. I might not need to write about my character’s mother, but I probably need to know that she worked 35 years in a union job and that she was a single mother for much of his childhood. Her life helped make my main character who he is. She might appear in the book, she might not. The point is, to create a character you need to know who he or she is. A bio helped me do that, or at least provided a starting point. I expect the rest to unfold as he lives his life on my pages.
If I find it serves the plot better if a character dies, I can do that, too. If he protests his demise via a voice in my head, I can say “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it!” It’s my book. I can do what I want with these people. I’ve created them. It can be quite the power trip.
I am the god of my characters. And like the God I believe in, I want what’s best for them, but more so, I want whatever happens to them, in them, and through them to serve my purpose. In the case of this book, my purpose is to construct a plot that makes sense. What the characters do or don’t do must help advance the plot to a logical conclusion. If not, then they don’t belong in my book, or in my head.