Creating a Character: Nat Walbrook in Chantress
Some characters are easy to write. Right from the start, I somehow know what makes them tick. Others present more of a challenge. With Chantress, it took me a while to understand the person at the heart of the story: Lucy, who works magic through song. But the very biggest mystery of all was the spy who turns Lucy’s heart upside down: Nat Walbrook.
Thinking about it, that makes sense – spies, after all, are used to holding their secrets close. But a writer can’t stay at arm’s length from her characters. She has to find some way of breaking the ice.
So how did I get to know Nat?
Some writers might have filled out character sheets, detailing his appearance and mannerisms and what he carries in his pockets. I’ve seen writers do great things with this method. Unfortunately, it never quite works for me. I end up with an assemblage of quirky traits, not a believable human being.
I asked different questions instead, the same questions I end up asking of all my characters, even the ones I think I know:
· What do you want?
· What do you need?
· What do you think stands in your way?
· What do you care about most?
· What do you fear?
Tough questions, all of them, especially the last ones. Questions that Nat most certainly wanted to evade. But the answers always help me figure out who a character is—and they’re crucial to plotting, too. The best kinds of stories often require people to sacrifice what they want most, and force them to face what they fear.
In Nat’s case, I had a terrible time getting real answers to these questions. I knew only that he loved science and hated magic—and that he would do anything to protect Penebrygg, the master clockmaker who had been like a father to him. I also gathered that he feared Lucy’s magic, but I wasn’t quite sure why.
When characters are being elusive, I find it helps to start the story rolling. Let them breathe and move around on the page, and sometimes you can work out what they’re like from what they say and do.
That’s what happened with Nat. As I let the story unfold, he challenged Lucy, comforted her, was confounded by her. He took risks, and even blurted out a few things in unguarded moments. I started to understand how resolute he was, and how desperate.
Eventually, I had answers to my key questions—not just glib ones, but the true answers, the deep answers, the answers that Nat didn’t want to share with anyone. With each draft I asked more of him, and with each draft he grew more real.
By now, Nat feels like someone I’ve known a long time—a dear friend, almost a part of myself. If he only existed in this one book, I’d be terribly sad, but luckily Chantress is a trilogy, and he and Lucy have more adventures to come.
I wonder what secrets they will share with me next?
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- ▼ May (12)
- ► 2012 (355)
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