Oh, the Humanity!

JK Rowling has repeatedly said in interviews that the character of Harry Potter “strolled into my head, on a train journey… very fully formed.” It has given hope to millions of aspiring authors that they, too, can find their characters as easily as that. One day, a person with a unique personality and a unique voice will simply pop into their mind, and the character development is finished.

Perhaps it really is that simple. I have a friend who writes characters that you could genuinely believe might appear in front of you as you stroll down the street one fine day. But for me, that part of starting a new novel is a struggle. Because my focus is on the plot, and on the character’s growth throughout the novel, I constantly fall into the trap of creating pawns that move to serve the plot and bring it to the planned conclusion.

Game pieces aren’t human, by the way. Just ask any knight or bishop on a chess board.

To make characters human takes a lot more effort. As I develop the drunken ex-assassin who’s the main character of my latest novel, I keep searching for ways to make him more human. Yes, the story calls for him to be a loner as a result of his nature and his upbringing. He is highly loyal to the king he once served and wants to see him succeed in his campaign of conquest. He’s adrift and self-destructive, and he’s good at shutting off his emotions to get the job done.

But although all this explains his motivations and gets the plot moving, it doesn’t flesh out who he is as a person. We don’t know if he likes blueberry pie, if he can’t stand the colour red, if he has a soft spot for baby animals, if he follows the local version of football fervently. We know nothing about all the little things that make him more than just another pawn in the story, albeit a crucial one.

So as I write, I find myself asking how he’d react in all kinds of stupid situations: Falling into a puddle of mud, accidentally breaking someone’s best vase, watching someone covered in dirt flop onto his clean bed. I explore his senses other than sight: What smells attract or repel him? (The smell of any kind of baked pastries can rouse him from the deepest stupor). What kind of music does he enjoy, and what sends him to sleep? What material does he like for his clothes, or for his bed linen? All this has nothing to do with the plot. But when he becomes a real person to me, he becomes a real person to my readers as well.

Real humans are illogical, irrational beings. We sometimes do things that work against us and against what we want because of our emotions, our fears, or some other subconscious barrier. Psychology has proved time and time again that although we think we are perfectly logical, in fact, we are led more by our feelings than our brains.

We have likes and dislikes that have nothing to do with a predefined purpose. We get into moods because of something intangible that affects no one else around us. We are, quite frankly, one giant contradiction.

And that, I think, is what makes us so interesting. And what makes us so very human.


Leanne Yong is an aspiring author who is working on her second young adult novel. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing.

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