Many, many years ago, a man in the office where I worked suddenly became concerned about my writing hobby. “You draw your characters from real life, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure. That’s the only place they could possibly come from.”
Now he was worried. “That means that any of us could end up in your story.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, “but whether you turn out to be a hero or a villain is entirely up to you.” I smiled sweetly.
He needn’t have been so concerned, because he was not much of a character. He was not, shall we say, the most interesting man in the world. In appearance, temperament, and personality, he was something of an Everyman.
But the Everyperson is in fact, a staple character, particularly as a protagonist. The Everyman or Everywoman can be a tough to crack. Building an Everyperson can feel like building a house out of oatmeal.
When plot comes into the creation, we encounter a chicken and egg question. Plot is a series of actions taken by characters. For my character to be plausible, her actions come out of character. To discover character requires observing action. Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Or they ought to be. But which comes first?
We have to begin somewhere. We have to decide something about our character before she ever takes a step. We have to know something about what happens, and what’s being done, before we know who’s doing it. Ideally, we have an idea about both initially, enough to get ourselves going.
If we take our Everyman, and try to make him do a bunch of stuff before we know who he is, his actions will seem forced. We’ve all had this experience as readers or viewers: the sudden disheartening feeling that this fictional piece we were enjoying a few moments before has taken a Very Bad Turn. We become painfully aware the plot was made up by somebody. Somebody wanted the plot to go a certain way, and the characters are now speaking from a script.
The best characters appear realer than real. They appear inevitable.
We cannot force our Everyperson into action, but it is also difficult to draw a character before he or she has opened her mouth or taken a step. I always dislike those character templates where you go through and answer a bunch of questions, like, what is the character’s favorite color? What is he wearing? Or, heaven help us, what are her quirks? I don’t do well on those; I am too bored, and I don’t give interesting answers. I end up with no character.
In the end, I rely on inspiration. I suddenly realize my character looks like Andrew Jackson, or stands with feet precisely placed, like a professional dancer. At some point, I must have some idea what my character’s childhood was like, what pivotal events occurred, whether or not that information ever makes it into the story itself. Gradually, the character becomes more full-color, and more three-dimensional.
I can’t force it, but I keep asking who this person is. I wait for the turn of the head, the wince, or the laugh that seems to come from a wound. Eventually, character happens, but I am never quite sure how.