In the course of human events, we all come upon real characters. How precisely does a writer create a fictional character?
The answer is complex because no sole individual — living, deceased, on the silver screen or on the brassy Internet — can embody a fictional character. The actual creation of a fictional person involves a composite of so many people, real, imagined, alive, and dead, that even the author cannot fully list the ingredients of the recipe for the fictional character cake (or, in the case of a child, a cupcake). In my case, it is often impossible for me to even recall the recipe once the cake is baked; the blending and mixing are done so intuitively.
There is also the challenge of sufficiently analyzing the development of a character. This facet of writing fiction is, in my experience, the one that hangs up most writers on the literary clothesline. Let’s unpin the fabric of our fiction and assess the elements needed to develop a realistic character, one with blood and guts and the ability to — not jump off the page at you but — engagingly invite you to join him or her in their world on the “page.”
1. Villain or Hero. Times have changed somewhat with the advent of the ambivalent hero (or even ambivalent villain) sometime during the past century, but the best characters are the ones proud to wear a label of some sort: vixen, virtuoso, vamp, tramp, ornery cuss, jerk face, man-of-honor, angel of mercy, she’ll-do-him-wrong-every-time, wuss, victim, sadist, passionate-soul, no-account spoiled heartless rake, gal-with-a-heart-of-gold. You see the gamut.
Problems arise when a writer wants to create a character that breaks this mold but discovers that the mold does not break that easily. In fact, the character keeps trying to slip back into the mold, signifying that the character just might be made of Jello! You then need to analyze if the character is based more in ideal terms and less in real terms. The other conundrum might also be possible: a character that lacks ideal qualities and is too close to reality (a condition that in fiction creates boredom).
The development of a villain must be more consistent than the development of a hero. Why? Heroes have more choices from which to act or not to act; it’s the reward for having courage. Rather than consistently waste time trying not to be responsible, or game someone, the hero does the good deeds; gets the job done; finds options a-plenty that come from keeping promises (including a promising future); and then he goes home happily (usually with the Girl).
The coward (villain) rarely does any of these things (or he does the right thing for the wrong reason). He rarely has a home to which to return (or at least a happy one to comfort him), and somehow he always manages to lose the Girl. The hero can be wrong a few times; in fact, he needs to make mistakes and even be shockingly wrong a few times so that he must work toward redemption with the valiant courage that the reader instinctively believes belongs to this character. The villain ain’t willin’ to do much except complicate the plot and ruin his life along with a few others along the way to his demise.
In real life, you’re best advised to steer clear of this type of character, and if you’re wise (and/or practical), you do. In fiction, you steer him (or her) down a downward path. Even if the road goes uphill for him for a while (and in a good story, it does), that road must descend by the end for the non-friend in fiction.
So don’t fudge when it comes to the villain. If you don’t have the courage to make your villain really bad, consider a different type of writing. This over-concern, or even concern, about your literary image is akin to the actor who will pull punches subtly (slyly winking to the audience that he’s really not this evil) when acting the part of a vile villain, especially if the actor has theretofore played Mr. Nice Guy. The need to be loved by the audience, or by the reader, is an unfortunate need. It blocks creativity. It blocks growth. Actually, it blocks both!
During one of my first book signings for the first NORTHSTAR, the bookstore manager told me that she really liked my novel: “Your villains are so bad and your heroes are so good!”
From that point on, I knew that creating characters that fit into all sorts of places between the two extremes was my literary homework (quite literally!). I realized that I’d handled the basics well. In time, I came to learn that the approach to the development of a villain and the approach to the development of a hero are not all that different: an honest-to-goodness good fiction writer must be able to consider good/virtuous aspects for the villain and bad/unsightly aspects for the hero. (For the problem of falling in love with a character, please read this essay: http://www.debramilligan.com/may-2013.)
There have been times when I was working on a “villain” and “he” turned out to be much better as a “hero”! I am not sure that the reverse has ever occurred, where the hero becomes the villain. That potential drama would be compelling but I might have a blind spot for “fallen angels.” Perhaps I have known too many in real life. I have, nonetheless, encountered NO problem with turning a sympathetic character into the guilty party!
2. The Love Interest. This sticky wicket has plagued many a fiction writer in real life and, most unfortunately, has haunted the pages of many a love-sick, love-starved, or love-mad writer. F. Scott Fitzgerald marred more than a few potential masterpieces by trying to solve in fiction the conflicts of marriage, love, and life that he could not resolve in marriage, love, and life.
There must be a compelling reason why two people fall in love. Sparks flying are insufficient (in fiction and in real life). Putting romance novels aside (far far aside), I posit the theory that where most love interests fall flat is in the arena — not of love — but of INTEREST.
Sometimes the two individuals have too much in common, and familiarity can breed contempt from the reader. Commonality is not the same as similarity. Commonality is not even comparable with compatibility, agreement, or overlap in opinion, reaction, emotion and experience. Two individuals can have a great deal in common, but be miles (if not worlds) apart in how they view where they are or were at the same place at the same time. That moment in time for each person might be worlds apart. Such twains that will never meet cannot be met with any vraisemblance in fiction. Somewhere in time they will never touch . . . mentally or emotionally or physically.
It is futile for a writer to convince the reader that for Person A and Person B, he is the key that fits her lock when the poetic truth — and the obvious “reality”— are that Person A and Person B do not inhabit the same space emotionally — and never will. Here is an instance where “unresolved issues” in the writer continue to control him and, thus, his art: a square peg does not fit into a round hole in fiction in either life or art.
In other instances, the two components of the love match are polar opposites. There are no sparks flying and there won’t be any lighting up anytime soon, if ever. The likelihood is dim that the quick spark of antagonism will be hot enough to ignite passion (or even smolder long enough) to make an enduring flame between them. You, the writer, may want them to evoke (or even erupt) excitement but their dialogue just . . . sorta . . . d - r - a - g - s. Or it too suddenly combusts! And then there is nothing left to follow with, except . . . ashes, or dead air.
Wearing rose-colored glasses to depict scenes that are essentially drenched emotionally in two-tone black-and-white — that aspirational technique works no better than colorizing (gah!) MGM films. Shakespeare’s “So quick bright things come to confusion” comes to mind from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” his comedy about love and marriage and fairies up to no good in the sylvan wood.
This formula of opposites-attracting-and-staying-together succeeds in films but it falls apart in novels. Why?
At its best, the motion picture is a sensual, visual experience, enhanced by sound; logical thought is typically suspended for the purpose of permitting the images to dominate the mood and thus the perception of the storyline. Factual details can be distorted (though blatant disregard of facts — if not contempt for them — is artistically contemptuous) for the sake of the cinematic effect upon the viewer who, for the sake of this visual art, will permit far more latitude than would the reader of a lengthy work of fiction such as the novel.
The novel is, in real terms, an analytical venue. From chapter to chapter, and within the chapter, the reader is expected to do some thinking. A writer wants the reader to enjoy the critical thinking skills! Even readers without any knowledge of Chemistry 1 have a clue that opposites attract but they eventually repel. Repulsion, instead of attraction, is not a pretty theme, but if that sordid tale is what compels you as a writer, go write ahead! Literary selfies are, however, a dime, or euro, a dozen.
There is also the great and eternal divide between the imagination and the images produced on a screen. For some people, the world of one’s own imagination defies and triumphs over anything displayed on the silver (or in present-day terms, the tarnished) screen. Prior to the sound era in film, the image ruled the screen. With the advent of the “talkie,” pure imagery became subordinate to dialogue and plot. Images can, at times, dominate dialogue and plot in a motion picture but it’s a rarity nowadays, in spite of (or because of) the fact that too many recent films have become CGI events.
The celluloid image has taken a real beating! Some movie-viewers go back home and dive into books as a way to recover their visual (and other) senses that have been bombastically bombarded or bored or both. Other “movie-goers” go home and watch vintage tv shows or classic movies to get the taste of tackiness out of their mouths!
In those books that contain a dynamic love story, the writer must blend the real and the ideal in ways that are natural but also subtle. The best love interest matches are made in the heaven of improbability that hides a natural desire for reciprocity. The discovery of the desire for synergy and communion is the driver in the love and in the plot. Initially, the lovers must like each other on some basic, perhaps instinctive, level. Perhaps, because of past experiences, they do not want to like each other. But, perhaps, because of past experiences, they are compelled to like each other. That energy of conflict and tension in that combustion engine, dear Writer, creates Physics and Chemistry 101!
Or, in the immortal words of the Disney song, “ . . . tale as old as time . . . barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly . . .” She may be the Beast, he the Beauty! What matters is that each person is capable of reaching something within the other person that no one else has touched — the true, authentic self. And from that initial invisible touch, love begins because of — and in spite of — who that other person is.
Deep-down within each of them, there is kismet, a love meant to be . . . Somewhere between your written lines, the reader can already “hear” the soundtrack of their love, even before the first words of love are spoken between them. Just make sure that by the time the soundtrack, the Love Theme, is heard, it does not fall flat or sharp or sour or treacly, compared to the anticipation your words created up until that point!
Finally, fundamentally, each lover must be capable of acceptance of one’s self, an achievement that eludes moderns in a way that guarantees the ripe popularity of classic books in perpetuity. And “acceptance of self” is not obsession with self. (“Love ya! But I can’t text you right now! I’m taking a selfie!!!”)
3. Language. How does your character speak? Is there a voice at all calling him or her to the phone of fiction? If not, do you think that once you start the writing, mellifluous tones will emerge? If so, think again.
If you cannot “hear” your character speak to you before you put finger to keyboard or pen to paper, spend some time talking to him or to her. It doesn’t matter where you have the conversation (although I would not suggest the dinner table), as long as the conversation is a dialogue and not a monologue! If you still cannot “hear” your character speak to you, chances are you either haven’t listened to what your character has to say, or your thoughts are drowning out his thoughts. It’s no way to treat a fictional figure!
There is also the writer who treats each character like a symbol or a weapon (sometimes it’s a stiletto, sometimes a club) or a megaphone. These characters not only feel wooden; they are wooden. And translating them to the screen only adds to the wood pile!
Not much creative writing talent is needed from screenwriters who scribble the self-obsessed and politically-correct platitudes of too many current “films”; and not much real acting talent is needed to histrionically simper the hype and tripe that comprise those screenplays. Those diatribes “voice” stereotypes or flight-from-stereotypes, that daring leap which initially can prove the power of provocation.
Provocation, however, is, in art as in life, a child’s game. It is the hallmark of the poseur, attempting to get another rise out of the audience who, in all senses, gets cheated out of the real performance of any art, save the “art” of manipulation. In the name of “artistic expression,” there is more fraud perpetrated against art with each passing mediocre electron. (Not all electrons are equal. Depending on the degree of freedom of movement, some are more “equal” than others.)
Over the past few decades, the film “industry” has produced a seemingly endless array of photocopied-provocation-through-morphed-mimicry of past films of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Oddly, one has to be told what the original prototype film was called; the narcissistic posturing and political=personal agendas of the present “production” set the stage much like Pravda once did in the Soviet Union.
Individuality and imagination are two vital components for the creation of art. For any true writer and artist, it is anathema to contemplate a world where any person or publicity consultant or “expert” or the “media” or the government of any nation determine what any individual can write or say or what “will sell.” Any person who agrees to those terms is a sell-out. And a sell-out is a Sad-Sack, posing as an artiste so elevated beyond the grubby masses that, surely, something must be done, with the tax dollars of those moron masses, to rectify this tragedy of being ignored, under-appreciated or, more likely, underpaid.
Government-sponsored art is not art. The reason why there are hack writers is because they could not hack it in the real world and they turned to other venues to pay their way. Free market forces are rough and tough, but they are the surest way for the public, the buying public, to voice their demands, for art, and for everything. If you are not writing for the buying public, then who are you writing for, or, to put it more elegantly: for whom are you writing?
If, as a writer, you want a government subsidy to attempt to re-create the modern version of the Court at Versailles or the Medici or the Pharaoh, bankrolling your work with tax dollars so that you do not have to compete in the real world, you might consider the fact that there is no future in the past, except for fictional research fodder.
If you do your historical research, you will frankly discover that we’ve not had artistic “state-sponsored art” since Versailles and Nicholas II. The art came with quite a price tag: « Après moi, le déluge. » And this year, Russia commemorates 100 years since the bloody revolution; the place is still very bloody in some areas.
One final commentary about the use of language for the professional writer. Sometime around the year 2001, I gave up working as a salaried contract technical writer for engineers. There was something within me, perhaps an artistic sensibility, perhaps a primal literary scream, that would not allow me to touch, yes, touch, the environmental psychobabble that was being passed off as engineering writing.
I’m not sure if my acute aversion was due to the squishiness of the inaccuracies; the overall meaninglessness of the words; the fact that almost every real word had been replaced by at least two or three vague and purposely nondescript “terms”; the utterly insipid banality of it all (and technical writing used to excite me!), or the silent, anxiety-ridden presumption that these false assumptions were not to be challenged or, shudder, changed!
So then why do you need an editor for revisions? My primary focus is not on the prepositions!
After one particularly neurotic session with a supervisory engineer trying not to tell me what he very much wanted to tell me about not doing the honest, direct editing job for which I had become notorious (“Does she have to bleed all over the page?”), I left the one-quarter-edited report on the table and walked out the door. I felt a lot like Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman in the exquisitely classic film, Notorious:
“Of course, I'm a marked woman, you know? I'm liable to blow up the Panama Canal any minute.”
In my case, it was the freaking engineering report I was likely to ignite with actual verbiage.
There was a fungus overtaking the office world back then, one of non-technical people of arrogance being placed in authority over the technical people devoid of arrogance but dedicated by a sense of devoted duty to their chosen profession. It was a malodorous circumstance I could not abide.
With disgust, I walked away from earning a lot of money and I rarely regretted it. I quite simply could not stand the vile influences of lawyer-ese, political correctness and the sort of non-technical thought goo that was intruding, like putrid saltwater, into the language, technical and otherwise. I began to profoundly comprehend the French rationale behind the founding of l’Académie française! Once the language of any nation goes, that country goes too, although to where is really not up to the citizenry that has abandoned its own language.
I have personally and professionally fought a very long and very hard battle against the imposition of political correctness, neutered locutions and the asinine argot that started creeping into the vocabulary of the American English language sometime during the 1980s. Back then, I was doing office work, and I referred to a certain employee who emptied the trashcans as a “garbage man”. Those spoken words nearly caused a riot among certain other employees who deemed it their business to tell me how to talk and how to think, perhaps even how to behave.
The Thought Police of the 1980s have become giddy with their delusional sense of power over other people. They are now DUI, driving drunk under the influence of arrogance. It’s a worldwide phenomenon! Amazingly, they have driven people out of the public square and into the domain of private thoughts, where all good thinking occurs anyway.
Language is one of the purest expressions of self. Once you permit anyone to tell you what to say and how to say it, you are on the rather slow, perhaps boring, path to losing your mind. Yes, indeedy, there were times during my more tumultuous years when I thought that I was losing my mind, but I soon found out the surest way for me to find it again, and to keep it, was to respond to the thought Nazis.
Every time that I was told to shut up, it only sharpened my verbal blade and I developed more character, true character, hardy hearty character. When one elitist of the heartless, ghoulish variety told me, loudly, in front of a crowd of her fellow sycophants and haughty toadies: “Tais-toi,” I made a silent, solemn vow not to shut up that part of me. Ever.
Such people, cowardly, intolerant, bullying and brassy, only served as whetstones for the sword that is I. Counter-irritants are good for the creative mind! So is some mental Clorox.
As a writer, you must purify your thoughts and your language in terms of how closely and accurately they reflect the truth in your mind. Lose that truth, and you have lost your bearings on reality. If you as an individual cannot feel free to speak your mind, there is very little chance or hope that any fictional character you develop will do the same.
Of course, some people cannot handle too much freedom, or reality, or truth. And those three elements are inextricably interconnected. If you are a person who gets antsy about too much liberty, the world of writing fiction will reject you long before you have a chance to reject it.
Writing is a craft that not only demands freedom, it craves it. The writer dreams of freedom. She yearns for it in a way that is indescribable. Such a desire for liberty is initially so inexpressible, without words, that it perhaps becomes the catalyst for a creative person to pen words: to express that desire, to aspire to that freedom, to transcend reality and compose dreams. Fiction is created as a result of that dreaming, that wordless yearning, that pure desire for liberty of the heart and the mind. Only with freedom can a real world be created, in life and in fiction.
And fiction is not a world of reality or un-reality. Fiction is a world where a believable reality is created for the purpose of permitting the characters to speak and act and live. Take, for instance, science fiction. That reality is not one as we would usually know it, but the invention of “reality” must be credible enough so that the characters come to life, perhaps even larger-than-life!
4. Ease of Expression. Regardless of the mode of communication
(verbal discussions, emails or hand-written composition), do you struggle to
express your feelings, thoughts, hopes, fears, excitement about the
character? Any hesitation about
“drawing” this fictional person will creep into your writing and create havoc. You have to be fearless about your character. No nervous nellies at the drawing board! Nothing can stop you from giving your
character the say and the speech and the show he deserves.
If you feel at all hemmed in by what others will (or even might!) think of the character; or if you are afraid that “he” will be (perhaps like you?) misunderstood, then you have the fictional character all bottled up. Uncorking him will not be easy.
This inhibition is the reason why the physical labor of writing has to take place only after considerable mental preparation and emotional readiness have been invested in the exploration and discovery of any character. The rush to write is often the coup de grâce that the author gives to many a character. To prevent this kiss of death, try to wait until the words — not about the character — but BY the character, must be written.
essence, the fiction writer must be selfless in creating the best characters
possible. It sounds like a paradox, but
only by forgetting your own ego and developing a character devoid of your self
— through imbuing that character with qualities and talents outside of
yourself, but also nascent within your truest self — only then can you arrive
at the types of heroes, villains, and those in-between types that are
unforgettable. Your identity, or
identities, can be used for fiction but they must not reflect YOU; they must
reflect the character you wish to create for the art of fiction.
You can then expand your fictional character in oh-so-many ways through the use of composite qualities and quirks of other people, real, imaginary, perhaps a mixture of both. The process is akin to stretching or compressing a piece of Silly Putty to fit and form the fictional face or even the entire person!
In short, your character inhabits a world that you create, but he must be able to live and thrive in that world. Let him breathe and move freely and grow! Sounds really ideal to me!