People often ask me where I get my ideas for characters, or more often, where I got the idea for a particular character. My first thought is simply: he's the person he had to be. But the truth is, forming a character is a profound and complex process, part coming from the writer's deep instinct about human nature, and part hard, cold, rational planning.
People also often ask whether it's the plot or the character that come first for me, and this is one question I can't answer. Robert McKee says in his book STORY, that character and story are inseparable, and this is something I 've always believed. For me, the first glimmer might be about a situation, a dilemma, a "what if?", or it might be a character who in some way seems unique or interesting. But immediately when I see one, I see the other.
For example in LADY WICKED (unpublished), I asked myself what happens to a Regency lady is cast off by her husband as an adulteress, but she didn't do anything wrong? And what happens if she discovers her husband's true motive was to trick his worst enemy into taking her in so her husband could sue in court and ruin the man? It took only a flicker in time before Davina, angry and bitter after years of abuse, stepped onto the stage. I also saw her immense inner strength that willed her to do whatever it took, even being accused of adultery, to break free of her abusive marriage and be left at last alone to run her own life. I knew, for her, another man in her life would be like drinking poison. Then who should step up to meddle in her life but Lord Savoury, an aimless and callous adventurer down on his luck, but who couldn't stop being her knight in tarnished armor even when she didn't want to be rescued. However the story might turn from there, these two lovers were firmly cast, and I knew the story could only go one way, the way these two must go.
People are all alike in certain ways, and they are all different in other ways. Characters must be that way too. A character must begin with his universal bond with the rest of humanity, whether it be a common experience, or a dilemma or emotion, such as an adolescent who struggles to find his identity as he separates into adulthood, yet has a deep-seated yearning to belong. We all either went through that struggle or know people who did, and a character in a book who feels this pain and struggles to resolve the conflict resonates deeply with us as readers.
But that alone is not enough, for every human being also has his uniqueness, and a character who is completely like everyone else lacks depth. Melisande, in my book FIRE DANCE, for example, was deliberately making the ultimate sacrifice for the people she loved. Her common ground lay in her love and loyalty for her people, and was easy to spot, but I didn't know what made her different. Then in the second chapter, out of the clear blue, this girl started hearing voices. I thought, I can't do this. Everyone will think she's crazy, and she's not. Then I realized this part of her could not be ignored. She completely believed she was demon-possessed, but I saw the voices as expressing her fears of death and Hell when the force of her personality refused to let her act on her fears. But that wasn't all. It took two more chapters before I realized the poor girl had no sense of humor. It wasn't a conscious choice for her. Nothing in her grim life had taught her how to enjoy humor, and her very literal mind couldn't comprehend it. To her, jokes seemed like lies, and she didn't see how an untruth could be funny. She was forever taking a joke literally, but other people knew it, understood, and found it endearing. At that moment, the true Melisande was born.
A character must have Strengths, but the other side of strength is weakness, and he must also have Flaws. Often the two are intertwined so closely that they really are the same trait. In my many years of social work, I often worked with children I called Kids of Steel, for against overwhelming odds, they found ways not just to cope and survive, but to grow beyond their environments into successful adults. But this same steel was acquired at a price. They might passionately support underdog causes, or deeply love others, yet they often had difficulty relating, or had a giant chip sitting on their shoulder. They'd had to close down the most intimate, vulnerable side of themselves in order to survive the pain of their childhoods, and as adults they didn't know how to re-build it.
In my current work GILDING LILLY, my hero is such a man, coming from an aristocratic family whose scandalous behavior is the scourge of society. Somehow in his childhood, he found the courage to be different, pledging to be honorable above all else. To survive, he had to distance himself from his disgraceful family, and family is the last thing he wants in his life. So what has to happen to him? His sister dies, begging him to take over and raise her son, the world's most obnoxious kid. Honor dictates he must, but reality says he will fail at a task he almost despises, and if he fails, he will dishonor himself. His strength has become his weakness, and he has to do a lot more than just find a wife to help him. It was when Gabe took a deep breath and stepped into his honor-bound child-raising/monster-taming role that he was born as a character.
People do what they are; they are what they do. The two cannot be separated. A person might very well desire to become honest and trustworthy, but if he takes the easy way out in his decisions, and that easy way is to be dishonest just this once, then he becomes more and more dishonest as time goes on. His actions help solidify his original behavior.
If just any character can be thrown into your plot and perform its deeds, then you need to go back and re-think both the plot and the character. But if you find a hero whose dilemma resonates in everyone's souls, as did William Wallace in BRAVEHEART, if you give him the uniqueness of Jack Sparrow in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and find the strengths and weaknesses that are inherent in both of those characters, then you will have found a hero who can have only one story, and that story cannot belong to anyone but him.
And that is the time when a character is born.