I wrote the article below on character creation for the Seattle Examiner earlier this year. Since I’ve now got a blog, and there’s not a contract in sight concerning my writings for that online magazine, I thought hey, reprint time!
The concept of character creation appears to hold near-mythical status amongst those not familiar with the dark arts of authorship, to the extent that just today I read that someone is suing an author for using them in a book. The author didn’t really use them, but the character in their story is apparently so like the real life person that they feel entitled on getting a cut of the book’s profits. So just where do the characters that populate our books come from?
There is, sadly, no single answer. Each writer has their own way of building the personalities their tales revolve around, and one thing may not work for another. A common misconception seems to be that writers simply use the people that they know in real life. In a way this is true, but it’s considerably more complex than just that. Characters in books are, upon close examination, quite different from real people. They often perform actions no normal person would contemplate in order to further the story’s plot, and whilst good writers often manage to disguise these unaccountable, unnatural thought processes it still stands to reason that nobody you’ve ever met would act in such a way.
In a similar vein characters often come across as having “exaggerated” or stereotypical personalities. The villain, packed full of despicable traits, or heroic protagonist. The dim-witted brute. The jaded detective. The murderer with the eyes as cold as ice. We accept these stereotypes when we read them because we’ve come across them so many times before – they make us feel comfortable, and they allow us to understand the character without the writer having to waste time going into details. But how many of the people you know with ice-blue eyes are also murderers?
They say it’s impossible to dream about something new. You had a dream about a unicorn? No, you had a dream about a horse and a horn and your brain combined them for you. You think you’re dreaming about someone you’ve never met, but look closer – he’s got the nose of the guy you passed in the street, the ears of your barber, spots like the teenager living next door. For me character creation is the same principal.
I have never met someone I consider to be fit character material for a story. Rather, I take the most exaggerated aspects of the people I know in real life, jumble them up, use them, and recycle them. I know a girl with startlingly pale blue eyes. Those eyes have been used for half-dozen ruthless special agents, snipers and assassins. Does she share any other traits with ruthless special agents, snipers or assassins? No, of course not, so it’s just her eyes that get used. Another person I know has loads of freckles. That’s fairly distinctive, I’ll use it. Her hair is brown though, not enough to make a character memorable, so I’ll take the thatched-straw blond of a third friend and incorporate that as well. In this way the artificial characters needed to populate my story are cobbled together from real life. They’re my little Frankenstein monsters, my patchwork people.
This is just one way of doing it, and doubtless there are as many variations as there are writers in the world. But we are all are trying to achieve the same end – we must take something artificial and invented, then make it act in a way that appears wholly natural. In this way the writer is tricking the reader into believing that they are following the tales of real, living, breathing persons. How the writer goes about this is their own special secret. One piece of advice though – it’s maybe not best to tell your friends if you’re using their traits for world’s next supervillain. Break it to them gently.
So, er, if you could build a secret lair anywhere in the world…