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Monday, April 11, 2005

THE CHARACTERS AMONG US

"When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before -- met him on the river."
Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) 1835-1910

You can imagine my surprise that day, a few years ago, when I walked into a post office in Asprovalta, Greece, and saw my General Perdikkas sitting behind the desk! I was in Macedonia (Northern Greece) researching for my novel, and had stopped to camp a few days at Asprovalta, a lovely sea-side community not far from Amphipolis, the site where Alexander's son and heir was held prisoner and eventually murdered.

I couldn't believe my eyes! The man behind the desk in the post office fit the description I had written about Perdikkas, the general who seized control of the Macedonian army after Alexander's death. He was dead-ringer. Needless to say, I made many trips to buy stamps in order to watch him, record his gestures and body language and just to fix his image in my mind. Being able to actually 'picture' a character really helps you get in touch with them.

The characters in your fiction are real people, human beings.

My novel is written from a historical plot, so most of the characters in it actually did exist.
During my stays in Greece I have looked for people who fit the descriptions that I have written about them. For me, it gives a living face to someone we know about only from history books, or if we are lucky, from marble sculptures, paintings or imprints on coins.

Once I saw a young man in the bus depot of Thessaloniki who came close to resembling what I would imagine Alexander to look like: small, bright-haired, compact build. Two years ago, in a seaside taverna on the island of Thassos, my friend and I spotted a waiter who was the exact image of Alexander as portrayed on a coin (I have a ring made from a copy of this coin.) The profile was exact, the curly hair. Only trouble was, he was much taller than Alexander would have been. Nevertheless I went back twice for dinner just so I could gaze on him and fix his image in my mind.

Once, in Athens, when my friends and I were at the taverna, my friend Roberto pointed out a group of men who were nearby. "Watch those men. They are Alexander's soldiers!" I watched and made notes, gestures, facial expressions, body language, the way they interacted. I did the same when I saw group of young soldiers on a ferry boat. They were Alexander's cadets. These little recorded details have helped me make my characters live, even the minor characters.

Just as people get to know each other in real life, this method shows up in fiction.

I have found that once I have established a visual image of the person it is easier to develop that character. In my novel writing classes, I suggest that people start bio files on their characters, write a back-story, descriptions, all the things you might need to know about that person. You won't use everything in your writing, but it helps you get to know them better.

Sometimes if I haven't established this kind of contact I'll have a bit of trouble developing them. But usually I've been lucky enough to get a really well-rounded idea of them as a living person by observing similar characters in real life.

One night I was in my local bistro and a man walked in who caught my eye immediately because I knew in an instant that he was my (fictional) character Nabarzanes, the Persian Court Advisor. He fit the description, and the more I watched him the more I could see a living Nabarzanes. I observed this man for a couple of weeks and eventually was introduced to him. I wasn't too far wrong. He was from Baghdad. (Nabarzanes was from Babylon). He is a Sumerian, an artist, an educated, elegant man just like my Nabarzanes. As a result of this meeting, the Babylonian and I have become very good friends. And the more I see of him, the more like Nabarzanes he becomes.

People-watching is an interesting past-time, and a necessary one for a writer. Be observant.
Jot down what you see and hear in your notebook (which you should always carry with you!)
It will help you make your characters live and breath.

"It seems that the analyses of character is the highest human entertainment, and literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names."
Isaac Basevis Singer 1904-1991

(If you want to read more about these characters who people the world of SHADOW OF THE LION, you can find links to them on my website: http://www.dreamwater.org/ruthaki )

2 comments:

Sam said...

Hi Wynn,
How fun to put people's faces on characters - and an excellent idea. Must help with description and such.
Sounds like you had a wonderful time in Greece. No wonder you want to go back!
Thanks for the link - have browsed and everything looks fascinating. Will have to go back and spend some quality time there!
Hugs,
Jenny

Wynn Bexton said...

Second try for this comment:
I've invested a lot of time in Greece, since 1978 (my first visit), living there full time during the 80's for five years, after that six month stints up til '98 and since then whatever time I can afford. This time it will be short, only 4 weeks, but I can hardly wait! Greece is my second home!