On invoking the ethos

The biggest surprise for me in writing my first novel came after I had written it. I won’t get into the issue of the editing process now, but suffice to say I’ve had to reread each chapter a hundred times. I know each sentence so intimately that if my husband had a question about something, I could follow it without a hint of the context – I would know instinctively what came before it and what came after.

I know what you’re thinking. Why shouldn’t I know that? I wrote the thing, after all. I came up with the ideas and the concepts, and I painstakingly put them to paper. But the truth is, you go into a kind of trance when you write. I would spend eight hours typing away, and when I was done I would reread what I had written with the same eager curiosity as I would read a brand new book.

I still experience the same thing today—that’s the surprise. I can open the book and experience the same fervor I do when I read something new. I don’t get bored with it. It’s like someone else wrote the entire thing.

Where am I going with this?

During my last post, I talked about writers as instruments. The story exists independent of us, and we are simply the mechanism through which it takes physical form. I believe the reason for that is the characters. As I mentioned before, in my experience, they exist independently of the written form; they live and breathe in a writer’s mind, and in my case it was the characters telling the story—that’s why I can reread the book a thousand times and always be surprised.

I don’t think I’m alone in this view. Ernest Hemingway said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.”

These living people carry the book. They are the souls the reader connects with; what invokes the ethos, so to speak.

So before the setting, plot, subplots, hooks, imagery, conflicts, et al, comes the characters. And if they’re anemic in any way, if they aren’t authentic, chances are the foundation of your story will collapse.

So how do you develop those kinds of characters?

For me, it always starts with what I call the pith, which means the essence of something; a forceful and concise expression of it. It usually takes the shape of a sentence; an undeniable truth about the character. That truth can change, but only in exceptional circumstances.

For instance, when I think of Anne Rice’s Louis, I would say his pith is merciful death. For Lestat, it would be The Brat Prince. I didn’t make up these descriptors. If you’ve read the books you know the characters have been described by the author in exactly these terms, and in my opinion they express the crux (pith) of those characters; what propels them forward throughout the entire story (as the writer, when I’m lost or confused about how to proceed or how a character should react I turn to their pith).

The first few chapters of The Butterfly Crest introduce the reader to three main characters: an unnamed one (let’s call him Mr. Muse), Elena Vicens (the protagonist), and Cataline Ferrá (supporting actress). These are their piths:

  • Mr. Muse – unyielding and immutable
  • Elena – still waters run deep
  • Cataline – beguiling decadence

Those are their truths; their best, but also their worst, qualities. Everything about them begins and ends with those words. From there, I build the character, layer by layer. I go into meticulous detail, imagining (shaping) everything about them—facial structure, body type, likes and dislikes, food preferences, what their home/furniture/decor looks like, what side of the bed they sleep on, what music they listen to, speech pattern, mannerisms, etc. I even go so far as to find avatars for them (images of a face that fits what I imagined), and images of what their wardrobe would look like and their favorite items. I also think about their past and their background (even if it isn’t relevant to the plot) because it is a major factor in the authenticity of their personality. The idea is to shape the character until I can slip into their skin and completely lose myself in them.

That’s not to say I have them fully formed when I start writing. Some of the characters I’ve developed for years (like Mr. Muse), but others are completely new (Elena and Cataline). Of those, the major ones I develop as thoroughly as I can before starting to write (during the outline stage), and the minor ones I begin abstract and develop with the story. Some even burst onto the page spontaneously (like Cataline did) and assert themselves (usually in a very visceral fashion). I write fantasy and focus a great deal on world mythology, so in some instances there’s a footprint I have to follow, but that only gives me a skeleton; I still have to give the character flesh and make it entirely my own. Everything around me influences the process—photography, music, other cultures, art, fashion, movies, people, my own personality traits (completely isolated and exaggerated).

Whatever your method might be, if you don’t create living people (if you don’t invoke the ethos through your characters) everything else will be for naught.

I recall settings and storylines, but I’ve only ever fallen in love with living people.

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