Oren’s life is like our own*. It is not a series of events, but rather his life occupies a space in time and is constructed of soul + DNA + experience, within and influenced by a community – a cast of other characters.
However, characters in novels cannot be written with the complexity of real people. If I attempt to write a character with all the interior life and mixed motivations of a real person, I’ll not only overwhelm the story but my reader as well. I won’t create a realistic character; I’ll create a muddy persona without shape and lacking individuality.
Characters in stories are presented through a series of reveals – concrete, strategically chosen facts, and declared motivations – which (if we do our best work) give the reader the illusion that all the complexity of a life exists between the lines and off camera.
A key element enters here for the writer: we must know more of the character than is on the page.
The writer must know the character’s life story – as deeply as possible – in order to authentically present snippets of his/her life to the reader. Here’s a loose metaphor – in order to most effectively treat a patient a doctor strives to know the history of that patient and as much as possible about their lifestyle past and present. None of this detail may be addressed in the patient’s care – discussed or further explored in any way – but care for the patient’s present complaint will be most accurate and lasting with this knowledge in hand.
Similarly, writers write about characters – their history, habits, lifestyle (sometimes called a character sketch) – to learn about them. This meta-writing isn’t intended to ever be part of the story, but it is how we learn about characters, how we discover them and sculpt them so that we can create for our readers the illusion of a real story about a real person.
*Except that Oren is a character in my novel-in-progress. He is a master scribe from the ancient city of Susa.