Writer in Residence

Characters like family

By Waubgeshig Rice

Tyler detail

A detail about Tyler's hockey playing past in Moon of the Crusted Snow

One of my favourite parts of the writing process is creating and developing characters. I’ve always believed a story is only as strongly crafted as the people in it. Characters are the pillars of and the guides through a story. As such, a story’s success or viability is entirely dependent on how believable and relatable the characters are. When we read, we look for ourselves or people we know in the characters, or if it’s a realm or premise we’re entirely unfamiliar with, we seek to learn through empathy. That’s why it’s crucial to fully develop your characters before writing out your manuscript. 

I touched on this a bit already in my introductory interview before taking up the writer in residence role here at Open Book for the month. I’ll expand on that a little more by explaining my process and why I find it so fun and important. Before I write out prose, I ensure I am deeply connected with my characters so that I understand how they live and act as the story unfolds. They almost become like family to me. 

My new novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, took years to dream up before I actually sat down to write it. I conceptualized and visualized in my mind each and every character even before I knew exactly where the story was going to go. I wrote out extremely detailed profiles for each of them, compete with physical descriptions and capabilities, emotional and mental traits, their relationships with other characters, and even seemingly mundane things like their favourite food and songs. I wanted to know these people very intimately before committing them to the literary world. 

These profiles were sketched out extensively in point form. Even if some details didn’t make it into the story, it was important for me to know them just in case an unexpected situation came up later in the writing process and I needed a reference point for the character to determine how to make them respond in that scenario. 

For example, the protagonist Evan Whitesky is an avid outdoorsman who likes to read hunting, fishing, and other outdoors magazines. That’s a pretty basic and seemingly inconsequential detail, but when I wrote about him building a shelter later in the story that’s uncharacteristic to his people or the land, I had to explain where he learned it. He read about it in a magazine. I initially wasn’t expecting to have to do that. 

Also, Evan’s favourite band is System of a Down. That detail, however, didn’t make it into the story because there was really no place for it. There is a music discussion between him and his friend Izzy at one point, but it’s so brief this detail wouldn’t have mattered to anything. Still, I knew that about him just in case. 

And it’s these little details that really makes readers connect with characters. It helps develop empathy. Whenever I connect with a character in a book I’m reading, I’m committed to the story for the long haul. And it could be just the smallest fact that makes me empathize, like a favourite colour, daily routine or subtle response to a situation. 

I often also sketch out “family trees” to remind myself how each character relates to each other, and the different connections between factions in a story. For a relatively short book, there are a lot of characters in Moon of the Crusted Snow who are instrumental to the story’s theme of survival and community. Like in any small reserve, everyone knows everyone, and has some sort of history with one another. This doesn’t look like a typical family tree per se, but I make sure to group characters together and align them with important plot elements. 

As for the antagonist in this novel, Justin Scott, the process was a lot simpler - I made him embody almost everything I loathed in an evil, disruptive character. Physically, he’s modelled after The Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But otherwise I dumped everything I disliked in bad people into him. It was actually really fun!

Every writer has different processes to develop characters, and this is just mine. It’s worked for me so far, and I find the actual writing process flows more smoothly when I have a better understanding of my characters. You have to live with them for a while in order to effectively write them.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent the bulk of his journalism career at CBC, most recently as host of Up North, the afternoon radio program for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.