on creating characters

I’ve been wanting to write a post on this topic for some time. The process of creating characters is very interesting to me, and I am always intrigued at how other writers approach bringing their own characters to life.

While looking for a picture that would invoke “character” for this post, I came across so many different meanings and approaches to understanding the term. There are characters in books, but there are also characters in comics and graphic novels, cartoons, drawings/illustrations, movies, television, theater/film/performance, music, dance, and other creative arts. We also refer to the word “character” to define the core of one’s personality, the moral and ethical make-up of a person, the compass that one lives by.

For writers, there are many books dedicated to creating characters. There are lessons, templates, webs and maps, and computer programs intended to help us develop character. Part of the reading and writing curriculum for students of all ages is to identify and understand “character,” and school based worksheets are to be found for children as young as 1st grade.

It is no accident that the term “character” has such deep connotations. When we create character, we are creating sentient beings. If one is writing other people, then it follows that we are following the same guidelines … what makes one’s “character” in life is the same as in fiction.

I like some of the templates for creating characters, especially the ones where you fill in all the pertinent info about the character (name/age/place of birth/physical, socio-economic, and mental characteristics/habits/memories/friends/etc). That’s because I like to make lists. But I confess that I rarely use these templates.

I believe that the essential ingredient to creating characters is deep empathy. I think that people who successfully create characters have an ability to corporealize all of the above information into the character’s thoughts, behaviors, and actions within the story.

It is not the list of information that creates a character; it is knowing where that information affects the character’s motivations and choices. This understanding, this deep empathy, does not judge either, which is why people can create “bad” characters without actually being bad people. It is an ability to step outside oneself and to see with another person’s eyes, to feel with their heart, to know their strengths, their weaknesses, their blind spots, their failures, their successes, their desires, their passions, their memories. It is living in another person’s soul. This is not memoir. This is how a fictional character becomes a living, breathing person.

While looking at quotes on “character,” I compiled a short list.  I feel these quotes say something essential about character, and really get to the heart of what we do when we create character.

“Our character is but the stamp on our souls of the free choices of good and evil we have made through life.”
~ John C. Geikie

“Men best show their character in trifles, where they are not on their guard. It is in the simplest habits, that we often see the boundless egotism which pays no regard to the feelings of others and denies nothing to itself.”
~ Arthur Schopenhauer

“Every thought willingly contemplated, every word meaningfully spoken, every action freely done, consolidates itself in the character, and will project itself onward in a permanent continuity.”
~ Henry Giles

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
~ Abraham Lincoln

“Choices determine character.”
~ Brandon Mull

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
~ Helen Keller

“Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.”
~ Sam Shepard

“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
~ Ernest Hemingway

“Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal.”
~ Walt Disney

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
~ William Faulkner

When we create characters, we also are entering the territory where fiction straddles the line between truth and lies, the idea of “the truth inside the lie.” Many times people think that authors create characters from people they know or who they are, especially if the author writes in 1st person.

I have dealt with this sort of identification, which is why I like to come back to these topics every once in a while. I know that many people don’t always understand this part in being a writer.

I’ve had the experience of reading fictional work and having people ask me afterwards, “did that really happen?” Once, after one of my erotic stories was published, someone asked my boyfriend at the time if he was the protagonist in my story! I’ve also had friends ask me if I modeled a character after them, or someone they knew, or if I created a setting from a place they had been. I think the reason for this is because writers do use bits and pieces of real life in their fiction. It is inescapable.

For example, a friend of mine used to live in an apartment in Harlem. The thing I loved most about her apartment was the antiquated, ornate molding where the walls met the ceiling in each room. The apartment house was old and had fallen far from the glory envisioned in the original architecture. The molding was painted over many times carelessly, almost as if trying to erase it under layers of paint, without regard to how beautiful it must have been in its original state.

Let’s just say that aspect of the apartment fascinated me. I thought about it a lot. I began noticing this type of molding in other places. This single detail. Why? I have no idea. I thought it was beautiful and sad and it just struck me. Years later, I had written a story where I used a detail of ornate crown molding in describing the setting of the character’s run-down apartment. My friend picked up on this, and asked if I used her old apartment for my story. No … I didn’t. I actually didn’t even think of her apartment when I was writing the story. But that detail of the crown molding had stuck in my mind.

I consider this to be a kind of “occupational hazard.” Many people seem to think that writers write about their lives and experiences, but non-writers don’t know the difference in process between memoir and fiction. Memoir -is- the I, whereas Fiction is beyond the I. This is an important but powerful difference.

Writing in 1st person pushes this hazard further, even though I think 1st person is the easiest way to really get into a character as a writer. It is a powerful tool, but it is also a double edged sword because the “I” who is narrating the story sometimes becomes fixed in the readers mind as “I” (the author).

No matter how imaginative we are, fiction writers draw from their lives and experiences because we can’t help but be the medium that our work passes through. Even high fantasy contains elements of reality, sublimated with bits and pieces of the author’s experience of being a person in this world. No one exists in a vacuum, and I believe that no matter how successful a writer can be in practicing this kind of deep empathy to create characters, there are always threads to connect the writer to his or her work. Some of the quotes I came across by Kundera address this very eloquently.

“Characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.”
~ Milan Kundera

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them all. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own “I” ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession, it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.”
~ Milan Kundera

Over the years, I have taken many classes and read many books about the process of writing. I have also taught writing to students at many different age levels. There is always more to learn, more to explore, and more to discover. Writing is a complex art that offers continual paths for growth.

After creating a character, a writer then needs to put the character into the world of the story. Or sometimes, the world of the story dictates the kind of characters that will be created. There is an interconnectedness here. But no matter how the seed idea comes into being, I still feel that deep empathy is the essential component to fully realizing a character.

One of my favorite books about writing is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Next to my encyclopedic dictionary, this is the book I reference most. If I am stuck or feel like I need to revisit the fundamentals, this is the book I turn to. In this book, Egri devotes several chapters to “character.”

Moving forward from how characters are created and into how characters function within a story, I’m going to share an excerpt from Egri’s chapter on character growth:

“Regardless of the medium in which you are working, you must know your characters thoroughly. And you must know them not only as they are today, but as they will be tomorrow or years from now.

Everything in nature changes – human beings along with the rest. A man who was brave ten years ago may be a coward now, for any number of reasons: age, physical deterioration, changed financial status, to name a few.

You may think you know someone who has never changed and never will. But no such person ever existed. A man may keep his religious and political views apparently intact through the years, but close scrutiny will show that his convictions have either deepened or become superficial. They have gone through many stages, many conflicts, and will continue to go through them, as long as the man lives. So he does change, after all.

Even stone changes, although its disintegration is imperceptible; the earth goes through a slow but persistent transformation; the sun, too, the solar system, the universe. Nations are born, pass through adolescence, achieve manhood, grow old, and then die, either violently or by gradual dissolution.

There is only one realm in which characters defy natural laws and remain the same – the realm of bad writing.

A character stands revealed through conflict; conflict begins with a decision; a decision is made because of the premise of your play [or story or novel]. The character’s decision necessarily sets in motion another decision, from his adversary. And it is these decisions, one resulting from the other, which propel the play [or story or novel] to its ultimate destination.”

*

Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.
Sam Shepard – See more at: http://josephsoninstitute.org/quotes/quotations.php?q=Character#sthash.S27O2Q7Z.dpuf
Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.
Sam Shepard, – See more at: http://josephsoninstitute.org/quotes/quotations.php?q=Character#sthash.S27O2Q7Z.dpuf
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