While TNBBC focuses intently on small press and self-published literary fiction, we enjoy hearing from authors of all genres when it comes to the writing process.
In today's spotlight, J.R. Wagner, author of the not-yet-released YA series The Never Chronicles, outlines the importance of developing your characters, no matter how small or insignificant they may be to the overall story line. I don't know about you, but I get all kinds of confused when I'm reading a sci-fi/fantasy novel that features a cast of umpteen million characters. Unless the book has a character guide or the author creates unique and memorable back stories for each one, I know I'll never be able to keep them all straight.
Wagner takes a moment here to discuss fate vs. coincidence, why he despises stock characters, and how he rescues his own characters from becoming "extras"....
Getting into character
In my soon-to-be released novel, Exiled, characters are not in short supply. As a writer, it can be difficult to get into the mind of each character as you are writing them. My first question when writing a new character is not what they look like or how they talk as some would think. I want to know the character’s back-story. Every character I’ve ever written has an interesting back-story. The main characters usually have a history that somehow intertwines with the other main characters or, at the very least, the plot.
Why is this important? In my middle school writing class, I was told about ‘stock characters’ –those characters that have no relevance or influence in the overall progression of the plot. They talk in one-liners, they have no depth and they generally get in the way. I likened them to the Storm Troopers from George Lucas’s Star Wars. I despise stock characters. Everybody has a story. Nobody should be just an ‘extra’.
The ‘extras’ in my story all have rich back-stories that may come into play in the future. Think about it, each person you interact with has, either intentionally or unintentionally shaped or shifted your life in one way or another. That man who stepped out in front of you as you exited the subway the other day causing you to spill your coffee all over the baby stroller (fortunately empty) resulted in you being late for work. Who was that guy? Was it intentional? Fate? Chance? Coincidence? Let your imagination decide.
My imagination tends to stray away from coincidence and toward intent. To do that, I must know why that particular character has decided to step in front of you at just the precise moment your $7 coffee was off balance. He knows you or knows of you but you don’t know him. How can that be? You’re important; you just don’t know it yet. He, this coffee-spilling instigator, knows that each event in your life will impact the next and eventually lead to THE event. The one you aren’t aware is coming yet. He’s been assigned to watch over you, not to interfere. As a result of his seemingly benign actions, this man you don’t even know and couldn’t even describe will be punished.
Things don’t just happen. Events lead up to THE event regardless of how insignificant THE event is. The question becomes, why as this character chosen this path? Is it because of something in his or her past? Someone in his or her present? When you look at the face of a man –look at his eyes, the wrinkles around them, the hollowness of his pupils, the redness of his lids, you can see a story there…a back-story. The very way in which he carries himself –upright, slouched, slumped, can convey the burden that is his life story.
Every person has an interesting story inside them. Some life event that is out of the ordinary. A great exercise in socialization, observation and mere intrigue is to find that story in a complete stranger. Go ahead. Sit next to the lady at the bus station whose single focus is wrapping that ugly pink yarn around her knitting needles and talk to her. Dig. Find her story. More than likely, you’ll be intrigued…and these are real people. Imagine what you can do for someone whose only existence depends upon the perpetuity of your own mind.
Imagine what that depth can do for a story. The readers begin to question. They question the character’s motivation for his or her actions. They question his or her intent and most importantly, THEY’RE QUESTIONING. They care enough about this character to give them more than a peripheral glance. If they know you, if they’re familiar with your writing style, they’ll quickly learn that every character is more than they appear and in the backs of their minds, they’ll wonder what role they have yet to play or have already played that’s resulted in the present situation.
From the woman behind the counter serving tea with a hint of lavender to the boy outside sweeping the snow from the cobblestone street with his painfully inefficient broom that drops bristles in its path, give them depth. Give them history. Know why she nods knowingly at your protagonist and continues about her work. The readers may never need to know but, in order to create that web of events that each impact the next (otherwise known as reality), I believe this is essential.
Bio: J. R. Wagner was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania during a blizzard. A competitive cyclist, triathlete, mountain biker and adventure racer, he once received a medal for saving a woman’s life during the kayaking section of an adventure race. And the adventure is hard to miss in his debut novel Exiled (Live Oak Book Group, June 5, 2012), the first book in J.R.’s young adult fantasy series The Never Chronicles. He’s got a day job to keep him “grounded”; J.R. helps run his late father’s Downingtown, Pennsylvania floor-covering business.
J.R. first started writing at 10 years old with his sequel to “Return of The Jedi” – the self-proclaimed “Star Wars geek” had lofty aspirations of working with George Lucas on filming the project. In 1990 he began filming his version of “The Lord of The Rings” in his parent’s basement, but the plug was pulled after he nearly burned down the house. Since then the storyteller has also written a full-length science fiction screenplay, a thriller novel and a second screenplay.
After graduating in Kinesiology from Arizona State University, J.R. returned to Downingtown, where his creative fires were re-stoked by his two beautiful daughters. J.R. also endearingly considers his wife Lisa his muse. It was during their trip to Maine he began writing Exiled.