By Reece Hirsch
How well do I know my protagonist before I start writing?
I’ve tried doing elaborate character profiles before getting started, listing a character’s personality traits, education, job history, family, musical tastes, etc. But while a laundry list of traits and likes and dislikes may stand in for character, it isn’t really character. Anyone who’s gone on a date based on a match.com profile could tell you that.
For me, character profiles inevitably end up being a little lifeless. While a profile can be a useful way of setting down the broad strokes, my protagonist usually only starts to come to life for me until after I’ve experimented with a few scenes and tried out some dialogue.
Hopefully, by the third or fourth chapter of the first draft, the character has started to speak in a distinctive voice that I can recognize. Once I reach that point, it usually means going back through the initial first draft chapters and rewriting that character’s dialogue and interactions.
Once I’ve found that voice in a character, then I can start finding ways to take some of the elements from the character profile and building a protagonist who starts to feel like a real person who makes sense – to the extent that anyone makes sense. I think it’s important that a character not be too schematic. Although biographers do their best to explain a life and turn it into a coherent story, no one is a mathematical product of their traits and experiences. There are always contradictions, loose ends and weaknesses, and that’s where a character begins to get interesting.
Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I tend to think of chapters as transactions. In most effective chapters, someone wants something and someone else is standing in opposition to that desire. In THE INSIDER, I found that in the scenes between lawyer Will Connelly and Yuri, a young wannabe Russian mobster. In my next book, there’s a scene between another lawyer protagonist and a slimy online pornographer that served the same purpose for me. It’s always interesting to observe two characters who can’t stand (or understand) each other. Those are often the scenes where I really start to find a character, and what I discover is usually something that wasn’t in my character profile.