On writing: show me your character

Posted by Annalisa Conti on September 7, 2016.

How do you create compelling characters, people that have qualities and flaws, dreams and nightmares?

I usually start from what I know. I look at myself and I try to auto-analyze the traits of my character that could apply to some actors in my stories. I ask myself a lot of questions:

  • What would I do in this specific situation?
  • How would I react to this event?
  • How would I interact with this person while discussing this specific topic?
  • What would I say?
  • What would I feel, and how would I express my feelings?

The second step in my character creation process consists in spicing it up: what if I were not exactly who I am? What if I were a mix of my friend, my husband, the neighbor, and my boss's boss? At this point the answers to the questions above can take unexpected turns, and new characters, new people, get shaped up from the page.

Another route I love to take starts from a book I've read, or a movie I've seen: what if that person had made different choices in her life? How would the emotions and feelings evolve under another, different, light?

I also try to imagine what would a character be if their story had taken place in today's New York City, the place I live. How would the narrator of "A Moveable Feast", Ernest Hemingway himself, spend his days in 2016 Manhattan, rather than in 1920s Paris? Would he write in a Starbucks and meet authors and editors at a Writer's Digest Conference? Would he go to Atlantic City for the weekend, to gamble and party, rather than to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, to watch the bullfights, like in "The Sun Also Rises"? Would he go to the movies at the AMC Theatre in Times Square, to immerse himself in the social experience of buttery hot pop corn, excited teenagers, and lost tourists? Would he fall in love with the main actress of the musical "Hamilton"?

And my all time favorite: what happens after the movie ends, after the novel has been read from the front to the back cover? "Boyhood", the beautiful and moving 2014 film directed by Richard Linklater, follows its protagonist from the age of six to eighteen, and we viewers watch the actor grow up in front of our eyes - the movie has been shot during twelve years, and it is a moving peek into another person's real life. What happens after the screen cuts to black? Where does Mason (Ellar Coltrane's character) decide to go to college? What life does he choose for himself after graduating? Where does he travel, who does he meet, who does he fall in love with? The countless turns of one's existence are what makes stories interesting to anyone else.

I always find it fascinating to explore the infinite possibilities of life and reality. Every time I'm on the subway or in an airport, or any another crowded place, for what matters, I watch people and I try to imagine their lives, their thoughts, their secrets. Why is that woman crying? Why is that couple fighting? Who is that man waiting for? A world of possibilities rolls out of my brain and starts to take place in front of my eyes.

Sometimes I wish I could talk to these other human beings, to capture a glimpse of their true story.