My friend Donnell Bell found this quote from me, in a long-ago online discussion, in her files and made this fun graphic. I honestly don’t remember the context or the conversation, but I know what I meant — or what it means to me now. To create a well-rounded character, you need to give them deep backstory. Give them baggage — experiences, emotions, biases, misconceptions they don’t see or don’t want to change, flaws they don’t want to acknowledge or fix. Aches, joys, jealousies, regrets, and fantasies. When you give them a full suitcase and you know what’s in it, you can unpack it at just the right time. You can pull out an experience that gives your character a particular way of seeing events and responding to them, you can hear that amazing bit of wisdom or that horrible misjudgment come out of their mouths. When they act from their own mixed bag of life, they’ll come alive on the page.
And what do I mean by keeping your own baggage to a minimum? Simply that you need to stay out of your characters’ way. When they horrify you, let them. When they say something that makes you cringe, write it down. Reserve judgment. Let that first draft be all theirs. Only when you have a complete draft is it time to exercise some judgment. Maybe the character showed a side of himself that’s exactly right and you didn’t plan it or expect it, but you unlatched the bag and out it came. In revision, you can decide if it’s too much or needs to be played up. Your writing voice, your subconscious, may have seen opportunities your conscious mind would have been blind to. Get it all out, see what you have, and then edit, sharpen, and polish.
That’s the best way to take your readers on a real trip.