There was an error in this gadget

Sunday, January 08, 2006


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

Who are these characters who occupy every day of my life? Characters, even though 'fictional' (or, in my case, from ancient history) are people, human beings and it's up to the writer to make them live like real people so our readers will come to know them and care for them as well as they know themselves. Even dispicable characters have to have some aspect of them that interests the reader. (Nobody is 'born bad'. How did they get that way?).

Part of what fiction is about is to give a better understanding of human nature and human behavior and the characters we choose to populate our stories with must be interesting and believable. Even minor characters have an important role by advancing the story line, relieving tension or conveying information before they fade into the wings.

There's various ways to find these characters. Some of them may be drawn from real life, people you've met or read about, or perhaps they are composites of several characters. Writers need to hone their observation skills, because just by observing strangers (on the street, on buses or in coffee shops) you can build ideas for your characters and put a 'real' face on them, having them act and move like living people, so they will come alive in your story.

Some authors have been known to use friends or family as models in their stories. I've done it myself. But be careful because this can sometimes lead to bad feelings. Remember, what 'actually' happened doesn't always work in fiction. It's what likely would have happened that makes a better story. So, if you do use 'real' people you must discard many details.

Whatever method you use, make sure your readers get to know your characters as well as you've grown to know them. Most importantly, imagine yourself as your characters. Draw on your own experiences. (Even if your characters is a cold-blooded killer you need to be able to imagine what it would be like to behave that way.)

How to I find my characters? My two-act play The Street: A Modern Tragedy is somewhat autobiographical. I wrote the original script when I was 18 as a cautionary tale for my peers after my boyfriend and his two pals became addicted to heroin. Of course, as I was still involved in the situation, I drastically changed the story. Besides, my parents censored what I wrote so I had to make it a tale of redemption which wasn't, in truth, the case.

So when I rewrote it in the late '90's I wrote it with far more truth, right from my heart. I still changed some things: Johnny (Giovanni) Festa, the male protagonist's family became Italian immigrants (the real person had a Scottish father and French Canadian mother). There were many new immigrants in the area where the play takes place at that time so the change worked well. The character of Sally Verstatt the street kid, was based on my former foster sister who, at age 14 been in the original cast as a party goer. She had left the security of our home shortly after that and died in prison, age 17 because of heroin. The role of Angela, was based on myself. And although I changed some things I did use some lines of dialogue that only I would remember had been actually spoken.

The play ran successfully for three weeks and each night in the audience there were people who had known some of the real characters. And the most interesting thing was, the young man who played Johnny looked so much like the real person that, after many discussion with me and expert character development he made the character really live. (note: The real person unfortunately had died two years previously as a result of his years of addiction.)

For my w.i.p. Dragons in the Sky: A Celtic Tale, the narrator, Olwen, speaks through me so I almost get the sense that she is an incarnation of me from another time. (This novel, a first-person narrative, takes place in Celtic Britain 4th C. B.C.) Teag, the young silversmith who she loves is based on a friend of mine. Sholto, the renegade chieftain's son is also based on someone I knew. And Elidi, the sailor from Byzantium is roughly drawn from life as well. Her Auntie Essylt is a composite of a couple of wise women I knew. That story is pure fiction but I feel so close to the characters, it's almost as if it really happened.

The novel I am finishing now, Shadow of the Lion follows a historical plot so most of the characters are non-fictional. However, how I interpret them, based on research and what I have observed, is fiction. I have managed to put a real face on most of the characters. I met Alexander's General Perdikkas one day when I went to the post office in the northern town of Asprovalto. It was him. I knew it! I made several trips back there to observe him and my character became alive. I caught a glimpse of Alexander one day too, in the train station at Thessaloniki. I worked for a time with a young woman from Afghanistan and met her sisters. They became my composite models for Roxana, Alexander's Soghdian wife. For his little son Iskander, I have observed many children but in particular one 4 year old gifted boy at the Chinese daycare where I used to work. He became my model for this exceptional royal child.

I had to invent a couple of fictional characters for this novel in order to balance good-guys/bad-guys. So I created the Magus, a Chaldean priest, patterened in some ways after my own father. And Nabarzanes, the Persian Court Advisor, Royal Cousin of Roxana. What a surprise I got one evening when I saw him walk into the Latin Quarter, the bistro that I frequent. I observed this tall, atttractive man for a few nights, figured out that he most likely was Persian. Got introduced, and was amazed to learn he is an Iraqi -- Sumerian, he says, from Baghdad (near ancient Babylon where Nabarzanes lived.) We have become great friends, the Babylonian and I. He's an artist and an exceptionally gracious man, just like my Nabarzanes.

So, where do you find your characters?

A character study:
"Her feet beneath her petticoat
Like little mice, stole in and out,
As if they feared the light;
But oh, she dances such a way!
No sun upon an Easter-day
Is half so fine a sight.
st. 8

Her lips were red, and one was thin,
Compared to that was next her chin,
Some bee had stung it newly."
st. 11
Sir John Suckling 1609-1642 "A Ballad Upon a Wedding" 1641


Debra Young said...

An interesting post, Wynn and it set me to thinking. Most of my characters are, I think, an amalgamation of my imagination, people I see in passing, and life experience. Hmmm...this may be a blog entry for me too.

WestEnd Writer said...

Hey Wynn

When writing my first novel, I found that I was adding characteristics as I progressed, which resulted in the whole thing needing to be re-written. One thing I found useful, was to draft a biography of each character, so I knew things like their zodiac sign, nature of relationships to parents and siblings, first love, education, food preferences / allergies, medical issues, etc. It was very useful, even though most of the info never made it to the text. Currently, I'm working on bios for my new cast in novel number 2. Wish me luck!


Sam said...

I do meet my characters, or at least bits and pieces of them. I tend to invent far more than the reality of the person I base my character upon though - and I also tend to mix several people up to create one person. Liek Debra says, an amalgamation.
But mostly they spring from my overactive imagination. (How many imanginary friends and animals did I have as a child? Too many to remember!) At one point I had an entire stable full of imaginary horses, lol!

Wynn Bexton said...

Yes, one of the things I suggest to people in my novel writing classes is to keep bios on your characters. This will include physical descriptions, family backgrounds, education etc etc. and also other pertinent information that might be helpful in the character development.

For instance, in "Shadow.." one of the characters (Alexander's idiot half-brother is prone to seizures so I clip anything I can find about this condition and keep it in his bio file. Also, my antagonist was, as far as I have figured out, probably a sociopathic psychopath so I went on-line and got loads of info about this condition (which fits him to a "t")

Keeping bios is a really useful way of getting to know your character and keeping the facts straight such as physicial description. Keeping photos of characters who resemble the way you've described yours is also a helpful tool

Gabriele C. said...

My characterization skills took a leap forward when I started giving them biographies. They really become alive that way. But I don't model my characters after people I know, I'm too socially dysfunctional to interact well with people and "read" them. Maybe there's an influence of literary characters, but that's subconscious. What I sometimes use is the dynamics of conflicts like the one my late mother had with her mother to model the relation between characteres (here Aurelius Idamantes and his father) but my characters react differently.

I keep some pics of actors for the looks. Viggo Mortensen (with dark hair like Aragorn) would make a great Talorcan, fe.