By Josi S. Kilpack
James N. Frey wrote one of my favorite writing books, How to Write a Damn Good Novel. I found this book early in my 'seeking knowledge' years as a writer and found it to be an invaluable resource. One of the sections in the book deals with characters, and within that comes his description of the novel-species of people called homo fictitious. It is a species very closely related to homo sapiens (that's human beings) except that it doesn't exist other than in the pages of a novel.
You see, homo fictitious is a far more simple person--the only elements of him or her that matter are those elements that matter to the story. Aunt Edna that made the worlds best brownies, is inconsequential unless she somehow contributes to the plot. They don't fight with their neighbors, unless that's part of the story. They don't ever do anything for no reason, every action, every element of their existence exists to season their characterization or move forward the plot.
Often, homo fictitious is uglier, or prettier, or taller, or speaks with a deeper voice than your average human, and no matter how average they are, there is something that makes them worthy of the story you're creating for them. They have features that mark them, such as Hermione's wild hair, and Harry's scar, and Edwards diamond sparkling skin. They stand out, in one way or another, even when they are blending in.
Imagine if you will, writing what you do in a day, starting with what time you woke up, did you go directly to the bathroom or did you make the bed first? Did you kick a shoe on your way to the bathroom, did it chip your nail polish? What is your morning routine, are you a sock, shoe, sock, shoe, person or a sock, sock, shoe, shoe? Imagine the pages and pages of information you could write before you even finished breakfast, especially once you add thoughts to your writing--how do you feel about eating oatmeal today? What does it remind you of? Now imagine giving that to someone and asking them to read it. Can you imagine reading it about someone else? Those things don't matter, and most of them don't exist in homo fictitious, because, as I said, they don't matter and you only include those things that do matter about your characters.
I once told someone that my books were not novels in the traditional fashion, but more windows into life, that they took a snapshot of a characters, life, showing all the details of their existence. I told them about the eight page first chapter that was centered around canning peaches. It sounded very romantic to me, and yet the comment wasn't received very well. "So what happens?" this person asked me. "I like stories where stuff happens." my argument was that I wanted my characters to be real, to be just like my reader. But I went back and ended up cutting the 8 page canning peaches scene and an additional 100 pages before I really got to the starting point of the book--the fact was, in all those pages, not enough happened to make a story. People don't read boring, but to write 'real' people there is just too much to say.
So, as you write your characters, find their strengths, learn their motivations, delve into their background and their psyche, but keep in mind they are not real, they are fiction. They always act for a reason. Even if they don't know it, you and your reader should. Make Darwin proud and let them evolve, but don't let them fool you into believing they are anything other than homo fictitious.