Talking of cabbages and kings–or just characters

I am at a writerly retreat this week, doing writerly things, so it’s a good time to answer reader questions. Jenae tweeted: Your characters are so beautifully complex. How do you develop them?

First, thanks! Very kind. Second, I don’t think of them as characters, I suppose. They’re not two-dimensional to me, and they don’t just exist on paper. I’m not one of those writers who says the characters just took over a scene and did what they want–that’s not my style at all. But it’s very important to me that I understand them completely.

Part of that is knowing what they look and sound like. I have a physical model for any character of importance. This is usually a composite of traits, mannerisms, vocal quirks, and physical characteristics pulled from a variety of sources. An elderly woman might have Helen Hayes’s hair, Maggie Smith’s voice, Judi Dench’s eyes. Pictures that call to mind any aspect of a character get incorporated into a collage that I hang opposite my desk when I work–an aide-memoire to help me keep the image of them fresh in my mind.

Besides knowing their physical appearance, I know their habits. I know how they speak to servants, how they treat their betters. I know what music they like, what foods they abhor. I know how they dress, and I know who they hate. I rarely write any of this down–it’s more a sense for who this person is. I am not given to composing elaborate backstories for the characters; often I will be writing a scene and a bit of their backstory pops out, fully formed and without conscious effort on my part. But my subconscious has been bubbling away, taking all the little bits I’ve assembled and giving them a twist.