Characters

In this post, I talked a little about Janet Evanovich's method of creating characters and also made reference to Robert J. Sawyer's method of creating characters (which he discusses here). Here's what Sawyer said:

Psst! Wanna hear a secret? The people in most stories aren't really humans — they're robots!

Real people are quite accidental, the result of a random jumbling of genes and a chaotic life. But story people are made to order to do a specific job. In other words, robots!

I can hear some of you pooh-poohing this notion, but it's not my idea. It goes back twenty-five hundred years to the classical playwrights. In Greek tragedy, the main character was always specifically designed to fit the particular plot. Indeed, each protagonist was constructed with an intrinsic hamartia, or tragic flaw, keyed directly to the story's theme. These days, writers have more latitude in narrative forms, but we still try to construct characters appropriate to a given tale.

You Can Write a MysteryIn chapter 5, "Developing Sleuths, Villains and Victims," in Gillian Roberts's book, You Can Write a Mystery, Roberts writes:

Building Fictional People
Fictional people begin life in a variety of ways. Perhaps your plot needs a person terrified of heights, or one foolhardy enough to attempt an impossible rescue. You begin building someone around that idea. Or your theme might require a certain kind of person to illustrate it. That, too, can be a starting point. Perhaps you've been fascinated (or horrified) by someone, or you've spotted a stranger whose appearance produces an immediate emotional reaction. You back off or feel drawn to him or "know" you'd have nothing in common with him — and you take the time to wonder about the basis of that feeling. You ask yourself about the clues to personality that the person's words, features, gestures or dress produce, and you use what you know of that person to fill in the missing parts.

Most often, your character will be born of a combination of sources, so it's a good idea to carry a notebook or index cards and develop a data bank by jotting down such sightings. Whether you begin from the observed surface and work in or from the interesting psychology and work out — or from pragmatic needs — your next job is to wrap believable life around that starting point.

What I really like is how specific Roberts gets. I don't recall anyone giving advice as specific as this:

Make note of what specific appearance cues caused you to react emotionally and make immediate value judgments. Don't write the abstract/judgment at which you arrived. Instead of writing sloppy, be specific: "hem unraveling," "stain that looks rubbed at but not removed on lapel," "hair in back matted."

And this:

Beware of basing characters on people you know. Whether you adore or despise the original, you run the danger of writing an unbelievable character. [GDT's NOTE: Interesting, isn't it, that basing the fictional on the real "runs the danger" of creating a character who is unbelievable?] And you limit your possibilities to those offered up in real life. As a fiction writer, you must think of real life — the one that isn't on the page — as no more than a starting point.

Human beings are too complicated and unfocused for writers to replicate, so what you aim for is your interpretation of a person. [GDT's NOTE: I read somewhere very recently that this is what makes well-created story people universal.] Know that your vision is skewed. Don't presume to be omniscient; presume to be a fiction writer. Don't duplicate or try to report; create something new. [GDT's NOTE: I've read also that despite the claim that there is nothing original under the sun, that what makes any given writer's work "original"¹ is the inclusion of things that make the writer herself unique.]

Why is it that some writers give such specific and gritty advice, while others are so nebulous in their instruction as to become meaningless? Even if I don't write any mysteries, methinks I want to purchase this book just for this advice alone. To me, these few paragraphs make this book worth more than its price.

This is an interesting thing. Three writers, all bestselling novelists, and every one of them approaches the building of character pretty much in the terms used by Sawyer. Their characters are "robots," but they then "wrap believable life" around them. To the best of my recollection, none of those who talk about their characters "coming to life" and "taking over the story" have ever been bestselling novelists. Not that this is any guarantee of becoming a bestseller, but still. I know also that Evanovich, Sawyer, and Roberts are not the only ones who tread this path. I know I've never done this. Perhaps I should give it a try, eh? I think I should.

Yes. Absolutely.

¹ On the subject of originality it's important to note the meaning of the word, specifically the meaning of origin: [etymology: Fr. origine, from Lat. origo, originis, from orior, to rise. ORIENT.] The first existence or beginning of anything; the commencement; fountain; source; that from which anything primarily proceeds. And from what or whom does a fiction story primarily proceed? The author. More importantly, if the author puts nothing of himself in his fiction, then the story becomes drab, generic, throw-away, and best forgotten. Thus, fiction, in part, is the unveiling of the author, but not completely, because no mystery novelist is actually a murderer, no science fiction author has traveled to another galaxy or piloted a spaceship, no horror writer has actually experienced the horrors their fiction conveys. And yet the fiction author does put a little of himself into each character who populates his stories. The best fiction contains pieces of autobiography, but are almost never completely autobiographical.

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