You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Creating Characters’ tag.
Real world vs. Created one. The sticky press of human interaction vs. the cool, orderly chaos in my head. Physical-reality people vs. made-up ones. It’s a struggle to choose. Especially when the real world presses too hard.
I am an idealist. Which means that, very often, things fall apart. Friendships, inexplicably, come undone. Fairness does not triumph. Thorniness flourishes. Prejudices and wickednesses really do stride with long steps across the landscape. People simply refuse to understand.
Come here, Created World. Here people are flawed, just as in that parallel world where I constantly trip over myself. Here they are evil. And stubborn. And plotting. And dishonest. And loving. And seeking. And generous. But here, I own the real estate. Things are safe here. I may not like the direction of events—especially when a plot runs away with itself, and I’m forced to chase it, yelling “Wait, wait, it’s me, remember?”—but I have indomitable faith that all will turn out for the best in the end.
Yet. People. Hmmmmm.
I create my characters out of physical models. Not all of them, but often the principals, and especially the male lead…my version of teenage stalker- fandom, I guess.
I make a concerted study of these folks. I watch for nuances of speech; for physical mannerisms; for clues to psychology. I am fully aware that these views are outward manifestations only…iceberg-tops, with the greater part of the person hidden from view. But these observations give me a place for imagination to begin taking hold.
But here’s the thing… what happens when a character-model does something irredeemably stupid in real life? Like falling in love with someone half his/her age. Or trying to scale a lamppost in an orgy of drunk driving. Or turning out to be a kitty-molester. Or a Republican. Then my life gets more difficult.
Sorry, but in this case, as much as I hate it, that other life becomes all-about-me. If the revelation of kitty-molestation comes after the book is finished, not so bad. I can retreat to the eidolon, the Created Construct. If it happens mid-work, then I’m in a not-good place—like finding a half a worm halfway through your salad. And if it happens in real-real living life? The not-written world I’m obliged to wake up to every day? Yikes.
I don’t want to be grudge-holding. I don’t like the judgmental me (the other half of the person who, often unfortunately, can see multiple sides to everything.) But I am those things. sometimes. On paper, those qualities work. In life, not so well.
I read a report, once, about a woman who was wakened from a coma who asked to be returned to it. The world outside her head just didn’t manage to live up to her hopes; the inside world was much more beautiful. Damn me, but I know how that feels. The idealist runs rampant through the streets of my head. Somebody stop me. Before I think again.
And, once again, for your Friday viewing…The Spiritkeeper trailer…
Feels like a good day, this. Nothing about it that’s different than yesterday or the day before (except perhaps that my brain is speaking to me, making suggestions without my having to wrestle my own thoughts to the ground to make them surrender.)
Makes sense that, on such a fine day, my contrary noggin would ask me to write about a contrary thing: Unlikable characters.
Unlikable characters are the people we create for substance and texture and conflict and plot development; to chart their journeys…and perhaps to give another character the chance to redeem them.
Where do they come from, these creatures whose lives become the substance of our own? When characters are drawn (as mine so often are) from inward observation rather than observation of others, things get interesting.
Writing from the unlikable in one’s self is always the product of brutal honesty. We invite some of the wronger aspects of our natures out into the open; the things we’d probably rather not admit are true about ourselves. These are the less-than-good traits we wish we didn’t own. The insecurities. The denials. The snark. The meanness. The tempers that lurk under the greater generosities of our natures. All laid bare. To conquer them.
Like the perfect apologist, we turn those traits around and make them all better. Through our characters, we conquer those Unlikables. We show them the error of their ways. We create the ideal space where love and goodness and fairness conquer all—despite the nagging backdoor cynicism that tells us that such denouements rarely ever happen in real life.
Truth? Sometimes it’s just more interesting to work with a character that you don’t really like; a character who—as my dear friend Mary says—you “wouldn’t be inviting over for dinner anytime soon.” And knowing where that character has come from? Seeking–finding–the humanity in that character is an unquestioned act of faith in the Self from which it was drawn.
Creating an Unlikable Character, and redeeming him/her is life, psychology, hope–the impossible triumph of the best in human nature–reflected in fiction. It is an act of embracing optimism, to surrender to the worst so the better can Be.
Strange thing, waking up without someone in your world.
I remember my mom saying, just after my dad died, that she would go outside and realize that there was nowhere in the world she could find him.
It’s that was with characters. And lovers. And folks who you believed in your heart were friends.
Characters walk away. They decide for themselves, after a while. They make up their minds. They go their own ways. They don’t ask you if that will affect you in any way—they just do it. They have their own lives…they always did, maybe.
It’s a surprise when it happens. Every time, it’s a surprise. And how incredibly painful it is, that’s always a surprise, too. Don’t you remember how much we meant to one another? you ask. Don’t you know that I created you?
Answer is, no. They don’t.
Characters will do what characters will do. Their logic, their loyalties, their love is not made up of anything you can understand. Being abandoned by a character—without a word of regret or farewell—is as real and immediate as when it happens in real life. Knowing this makes you angry. And resentful Sometimes, it makes you wonder why you leave yourself open for hurt like this. Sometimes it makes you wonder why you made the effort at all.
It is difficult to contemplate the death of a character, a friend you’ve written. It is probably even more complicated to understand why, as a writer, you are compelled to knock off a character at all.
Permanent Later, the final good-bye, of a loved one—whether through natural processes or emotional ones—is the toughest things we face in life. Perhaps we write it as a way to exorcise the dread of it in our lives. That’s probably much too simple an answer.
When we write, we are smarter than we are. We are more generous. We are more forgiving. More vengeful. And more merciless. In these conceived worlds in which we are High Lords and Masters, we exercise a power, a control, that we cannot wield in life. We turn the world manageable. Why would we remove from our lives something that we love so much?
Will I ever write a book in which NOBODY dies? Dunno. Do I kill off written representations of people I’ve known in real life? No. Except, perhaps once, obliquely and off-camera, via the name of a person I had come to hate. I don’t entertain death fantasies in people I’ve come to distrust or dislike. The question remains, then: Why?
We say good-bye to things in order to make more bearable the saying of good-bye that is inevitable in life.
Does it make the writing (or the reality) any easier? I don’t know that it does.
When I was young, I used to look at faces. A lot. To try to understand the secrets, there. To understand what was different between the younger among us and the older. I watched faces because, being an auditory learner—before anyone understood what that was—that’s what we do.
That habit has translated into the writing.
How the face tells what the words don’t. How the face tells the opposite of what we claim to feel. How exhaustion and joy and love translate from the unseeable electricities in our heads to the muscles and shadows we present to the world as expressions.
As writers, we are students of human interaction. Of emotional motivation. We see what we see. And we see what the inner eye sees. We store it inside, because it means something; because we treasure it in its richness. We set ourselves outside things and people to find what is truest about them.
I don’t believe that eyes are the mirrors of the soul. At least, I don’t think that adage goes far enough. Eyes, expressions, are our momentary access to what is universal among us.
Being a see-er: It’s an isolating thing sometimes. And a challenging one.
As a writer, how we describe a character from the inside out? How we evoke a physical appearance clear without ever describing it? And why do we keep doing it?
That wide-open nerve ending that our personalities become (or were they that all along?) is a two-way channel to something bigger than we are. Now all we have to do is figure out what that something is.
Friend Claudia (the writer whose novel Seeing Red is the first to be serialized on the Huffington Post, and the person whose blog MyStoryLives is posting my book The Spiritkeeper on Tuesdays and Saturdays), raised an interesting question…
Where do characters come from? Where does a book begin?
Claudia tells this story:
“It started in February, when I was sitting in my friend’s living room with my son, then about a year old,, on my knee. We were drinking tea and suddenly I looked out the window into the grey trees and I was staring at this woman character. She was so so real to me, and she turned out to be Audrey X, the grandmother in the novel. She was wearing this long grey coat and she had long silver hair, a blanket of it there on her shoulders. I had no idea who she was or what I was supposed to do with her. I let it go.
SIX MONTHS LATER, I was standing in the yard with the three kids and I looked out onto the road and there again I had another vision: I saw a couple on a motorcycle, a young man and holding onto him, a young woman ABOUT TO GIVE BIRTH. Candace it turns out was Audrey’s granddaughter, but at the time I had no idea what I was seeing.”
Ask me the same question, and I’m not sure what I would answer.
Spiritkeeper started with an image from life: my reactions to a lost pet killed at the side of the road. Where did its soul go, this poor thing that should have been loved somewhere? Who looks after it now?
My first book, The Eye of the Mind, started with a question: What if there were people who could predict natural disasters? And the second book, Sleep? A question there, too: What would happen if one’s sleep was a living thing inside, that knew everything you did—and everything you feared?
Ask me that about the book I’m working on now…not so sure what the answer would be. Something simpler, perhaps. One word.
And characters? Do they appear before you know their faces? Or later?
In “Eye”, Karel was, from Word One, a famous pianist whom I adored.
David Emory started out as a thought—but his face arrived a split-second later…the face of a musician whose name would be familiar to you. A face to which I ascribed a whole bunch of imaginary characteristics. Face thievery.
What is the practice of other writers? Do others carry around photographs of faces as I do? Do others decorate their desktops with those photos for easy access? Face Time is, for me, one of the most continuously evocative and inspiring tools in the imagined world. Because there ain’t no story without good face.
Few things will give a reader whiplash faster than dialog.
The back-and-forth of “he said, she said” exhausts the eye. And the patience. And the execution of that element essential to any story reminds us of one of the greatest skills a writer can bring to the page.
Each spoken sentence, each entry in a dialog, must have qualities as distinctive as the character who speaks it. Each must be different, individual, unique. We’re not talking about mannerisms, here. Not accents or verbal quirks. Instead, this is the representation of the character’s individuality that is revealed in speech.
As it is in Life, so shall it be in Fiction.
Can the “who is speaking here” challenge hold up without the continual signposts that point to the speaker’s identity? That’s the test. Two characters: not so tough. Especially if they are man and woman. Add a softness to the man’s personality—or a toughness to the woman’s—and the challenge becomes apparent.
Add a third character to the conversation, and the playing field changes. Three personalities to represent on the page. Landmarks are permitted…but how much more interesting to let the instant awareness of “who’s talking” do the talking for itself. In “The Spiritkeeper”, a lunch conversation between the three main characters never leaves a moment’s doubt about who the speaker is. That was a toughie.
Four, characters; five…that’s a dare. My first novel had ten characters. Seven of them were present most of the time; often, the seven were in one room at the same time. Each line of dialog had to make the identity of the speaker instantly clear, without the constant reliance on the “XXXX said” repetitions that would soon have made reading the scene like trying to peer in at it through a picket fence.
Surprisingly, the qualities of the characters’ voices can also further the story arc. Again using “Spiritkeeper” as an example, the female character’s speech takes on the tones and rhythms of the male character’s words as the tale progresses, an evidence of how she has changed and grown through the course of the story.
Can “he said, she said” go away? Maybe. Should it? Hell no. The need to identify a character needs that help from time to time. But the minute the Whiplash Factor appears…time to rewrite.
A test for the writer. A benchmark for the reader. The place where voices in the head aren’t entirely a bad thing.
How long does it take to get over a deep, abiding love?
Mine is written-down flesh and blood, not the warm, breathing creature. A man who kisses my thoughts rather than the space outside them. As if that made a difference.
I miss him.
I got to live with him for a bit. Not long enough, not nearly. I sent him where all lovers-on-paper must eventually go: to meet the wider world. I’m not completely sure what I’ll do without him, that beautiful, beautiful man.
I knew what his voice sounded like on the pillow next to mine. I knew what he looked like, squinting into the mirror in the morning; knew how he liked his coffee. I knew what he read and listened to. I knew his gentlenesses and pleasures and the troubles he carried deep. I knew the weight of him and the lightness of him. I watched him glow and simmer; I watched him founder in his darkness.
Like my other character-friend, I knew how to save him. But I couldn’t. He had to go away. That’s the hurtful, inevitable fate of a written-down love.
I want him back beside me. I want that love that is better than life. I want to talk with him again, just for a minute. Knowing that he’s out there isn’t enough. He’s alive. He isn’t. Either way, he’s not here. And I keep looking for excuses to go be with him again. For just a little while.