the question of existence

don’t worry, this isn’t too meta.

and i’m not going into “the meaning of life” talk either. i’ve never seen that Monty Python flick, though i’ll get around to it eventually.

do your characters have an existence?

this is a question that helped me re-work my approach to building my story’s characters. it used to be, that the story was all important to my writing and that characters were only needed to move the story forward.

and sometimes that can work out alright. but a lot of times it means you have a really good story, but unbelievable characters with little depth and who don’t seem to relate to each other well, and they come across as just “there” to be “there.” if you know what i mean.

it was an acting class that helped me with this aspect of writing. in my class, we talked a lot about characters having an existence and it being the job of the actor to bring that out. but it’s also the job of the writer to give the actor something to work with.

even if you’re working on a novel and not a play or screenplay, the question of existence is important for your characters. do they exist? why do they do what they do? what are their quirks? what are their faults? what are their hang-ups? what are their fears? what makes them human?

because that’s what writers create – humans. unless you’re writing something just about an alien life form, but even then, your experiences of humanity are informing what you want your aliens to be like. but i digress.

this doesn’t mean that your work has to cover every moment of the life of each and every character. that’s not the point. the point is this: where is your character coming from and where is s/he going? every line, every paragraph should flow out of that character’s very existence. it’s the one way that we get to “play God,” so have fun with it.

if during the re-writing process i discover a character has no existence to them, i have two choices:
1. completely re-write the character to give them an existence
2. scrap the character completely – because without an existence, they’re not adding anything to the story overall.

“Story is King,” they say. and i’m not saying i disagree. but when you think about some of your favorite stories, you also find some of your favorite characters. i mean, could you imagine a Gone With the Wind without Katie Scarlett? or a Light in August without Lena or Joe Christmas? or a Norman Rockwell painting without white people?

so i ask you again (and myself) – do your characters have an existence?


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