Organic characters

I read a novel a while ago that was wildly popular; it was published on multiple continents by a well known author. I liked the voice, I liked the characters, I liked the depth of the world, I liked the plot (well, at least 3/4 of it, until it got trippy weird and stopped making sense). The trouble for me really came down to the fact that while each individual element of the story was well done, none of them seemed to belong in the same book. The world was amazing, but given the parameters of that world, I just couldn’t see any way that the main character could ever come to exist. His life experiences just did not lead up to the character he displayed. Because of that, the plot didn’t make sense either in the context of the world building and characterization.

Now, in reality, people react to and grow from a multitude of circumstances into an infinite variety of individuals, but just like dialogue, characterization needs to make more sense in stories than it does in real life. Real dialogue between people is full of broken thoughts and skips and jumps and half-formed words. It often starts off with hello’s and how’ve you been’s, continues an earlier conversation mid-thought, or meanders pointlessly. If you tried to write down exactly what was said in a real life conversation, chances are very good it wouldn’t make for very good *story* dialogue, because in the story, the dialogue isn’t just people talking. Story dialogue conveys purpose and meaning. It addresses the needs of the story.

In the same way, characterization conveys information to cue the reader into the motivations, values, assumptions, and history of a character. When it’s done skillfully, the reader is left with a sense of understanding who that character is and what makes it tick. The events related about the character’s values, point of view, back story, and beliefs illustrate the why questions of the story. Why does she act that way? Why doesn’t she just run when trouble comes? Why is he an outcast? Why do people trust him? Why does she make mistakes?

I guess it seems to me that characters who are created without any thought to how they became the person they are stand out like a cat in a bird’s nest. The reader never gets that sense of understanding who the person is, and the choices that direct the story never add up.

Of course, this is not to say that every influential moment of a character’s life needs to be on the page. Certainly not, unless you’re writing a biography. But for me as both reader and writer, what does appear on the page needs to make sense and illustrate how that character came to be whomever she ends up being. And I find that sometimes, if I really dig deep and figure out the why of how a character behaves, I can refine those qualities to make the character live and breathe on the page and in the minds of the reader.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the label “organic” in writing could be applied to more than just writing without an outline. Characters, worldbuilding, plot, etc… These are all elements that can be organic, in the sense that they can be grown naturally from one another and be part of the same story-ecosystem.

This doesn’t require strange rituals or sacrifices to the muse or writing hoodoo voodoo. There’s no magic to it. It takes a lot of work to grow a garden that is complex and beautiful, where the elements marry together in harmony. It takes even more work to do that with a story.

Ah, but for me at least, the end result is very much worth the time.

How does your story garden grow?

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