Walter Mosley on Discovering Who Your Book’s Characters Really Are
"The creation of a novel is akin to a mad scramble up a mountainside."
I have writer friends who spend a great deal of time outlining and detailing the biographies of their major characters. Through this process, I am told, they discover the motivations underlying actions taken by these players as they move across the stage of the novel. This may very well be a powerful and productive way to construct an Iago or Sister Carrie. It is, however, not my way of discovery. I meet my characters the way I encounter people in life—at a place and in a situation where I have less knowledge than I’d like and am almost always, at first, paying attention to the least important details. After that, I’m in discovery mode.
I mention the biographical approach to character development because some writers feel more comfortable forearmed with the knowledge of personal history. I see where this approach can be both useful and pacific. If you know the education, age, sexual preference, family history and much of the minutiae of a person’s life, your decisions (and theirs) will be more accurate and possibly less distracting.
So if you, my fellow writer, find character bios useful, then by all means use them. Because the creation of a novel is akin to a mad scramble up a mountainside layered with loose pebbles. Any handhold or solid ground you can find will be a blessing.
That said, there is no preordained pathway to your ultimate destination. You may know everything about your protagonist’s life from insemination to her degradation by worms in the ground. But you will find that this creation of yours has a will of her own and she will encounter other well-defined characters who might force her to change direction and fly in the face of your deft templates and well-laid plans. In other words, she may not be who you thought she was.
Regardless of what you know before embarking on the novel proper you will have to discover, or rediscover, your characters in the prose of the work.
“Will you join me in a nightcap, Mr. Harmony?” Lady Estridge asked, the blue of her eyes echoing the pale hue of her teardrop diamond earrings.
“Not me, ma’am,” the man calling himself Hurston Harmony replied. “I never drink or smoke, or eat the flesh of animals for that matter.”
The slightest of smiles crossed the young heiress’s lips. She nodded briefly and then led him from the garden courtyard into the library, where her uncle waited.
My attempt in this romance dialogue knockoff is to begin the discovery of two characters who may or may not be central to the story that has yet to unfold. The lady might be from the upper classes, while Hurston’s language marks him as coming from more common roots. Her attention to detail, down to the color of her jewelry, is probably an accurate reflection of her aesthetics. Her smile is enigmatic, as is the placement of her uncle. Harmony might not be the man’s name, and so his profession to being a vegetarian teetotaler may also be fabrication.
In this way we are set up from the start to have the intentions of three characters revealed. We probably expect some kind of con job. Maybe, if familiar with the genre, we might be looking forward to a sexual romp. We’d like to know what the date is. It could be the turn of the 20th century or earlier. But when we find that the man calling himself Hurston is black and Lady Estridge is Kurd, then we might want to move the calendar up a century or so—or not.
My objective is to discover characters as they dive into the story looking to achieve their own ends and either finding themselves somewhere other than they expected or discovering that they had no idea what their goals would bring them. Maybe Mr. Harmony and Lady Estridge will, in spite of all their intentions, find love . . . even as it slips away.
So, in the case of Lady Estridge and Mr. Harmony, the story is the beard for the plot. It presents characters practiced in the sleight of hand of sophisticated repartee while at the same time having very serious hidden agendas that may or may not meet our expectations.
Somewhere there’s a war going on between the Blue and Yellow armies, we learn. Lady Estridge’s aunt’s husband, Dieter Sandler, supplies the Blues with “materials such as blankets and freeze-dried foods. But never weapons, sir, never. It’s against my religion.” He also points out that a great general of the Yellow Army is named Harmonious.
“Any relation?” he asks Hurston.
“Luckily, no,” Hurston replies. “You are aware that any individual closely related to the Yellow ruling class is arrested, tortured, and held for ransom.”
“Torturing a color,” Ariel Estridge comments. “Sometimes I think that God created women but the Morningstar made men.”
“Blasphemy!” Dieter exhorts.
This discussion contrasts the conflict between the Yellows and the Blues to the war of the sexes. It is there to reveal the elements of the age and the issues our characters must face. Though this banter and the danger and sexual tension prepare us for character development, they do not, on their own, achieve this end.
Character development requires change. It calls for transformation, literal transmogrification—both change and the process of change.
Walter Mosley’s Elements of Fiction is out now from Grove Atlantic.