June 3, 2010 – Know Thy Characters

It’s important for a writer to keep at least paper and pen handy at all time, because you never know where you’ll be when you have a great idea, or have a perfect scene, or a great one-liner in your head; and if you wait to write it down, you’re likely to lose part or all of it.

This past weekend I had all sorts of things running through my head, but usually at terrible times—like when sitting in a dark car for several hours, lying in bed, or while doing something else where it would not be appropriate to stop to write—like when socializing.  Of course, now that I’m back home, I can’t remember most of it, and certainly not the best bits.

As far as I can tell, there’s only two thing that can be done: 1, try not to think about your writing or characters when you’re stuck in a situation where you can’t write, or 2, just accept the fact that not every flash of brilliance will see the light of day.  As they say, timing is everything.  Even brilliance must be timed.

Being out and about, though, is good for character study.  When I wrote the second incarnation of my book, I was in college—and all women’s college, to be precise.  It was an experience which I wouldn’t trade, but it didn’t allow a lot of opportunity for studying men.  Of course, being in college, doesn’t offer a lot of opportunity for studying adults either.  Not a problem if you’re writing about young adults, but I’m writing about vampires who are hundreds of years old.  It doesn’t translate very well.

The other problem I had in college, which carried over into my characters, was that I was isolated.  Of the friends I made in my freshman year (the only year I lived on campus), I was the only one that graduated.  By my junior year, I was alone—no friends left and living alone, off-campus, six-and-a-half hours away from home.  I think there’s a good reason why Kalyn had no personality at all originally—I had no one to base her on except me, and I felt lost.

My characters now, however, are based in part on people I know, and they are much richer for it. 

  • Kalyn is partly me now, partly me when I was 16, and a few things I wish I was (like buff, and a neat-freak).
  • Anselm is based partly on my husband, is partly fictional, and has a little dash of our friend Owain. 
  • Micah is a little bit of Owain too, and I think some of our friend Martin.
  • Marie is based on descriptions of French women from a series of books by Anne Barone, and I think she might have a dash of Princess Leia in her too.
  • I had to think about Joshua for a little while.  I wasn’t exactly sure where he came from.  He doesn’t remind me of anyone I know.  And then, when I started listing out his personality traits, it dawned on me that he’s the Dalai Lama, only with sex appeal.  My husband, though, says he’s a dead-ringer for Omar Sharif. 
  • Rose’s dress and demeanor are based on my great-aunt Sissy.
  • Aunt Norma is named after my husband’s aunt, although she otherwise bears no resemblance to her.  I think she’s got my friend Carla’s temper, though.
  • Kalyn’s best friend, Megan, is repulsed by the idea of vampires, and that comes from Carla.

Creating characters for a book is a lot like actors acting; you have to draw from what you know (i.e. what you have observed) and put that into play.  As in the case of Joshua, I don’t always have a plan ahead of time, where I consciously say, “I am going to make a character that’s just like X,” but regardless of whether I copy people intentionally or not, I am drawing on my observation of other people, and the simple fact of the matter is, the more people you know and the more you are out and about in the world, the more real your characters will be.  I don’t think anyone can write good fiction and be a recluse—at least, not a lifetime recluse.  If you go out and do a lot of living, and then retire to live the life of a recluse, you can still create good fiction.  But you need those life experiences under your belt first.  And don’t get me wrong—some young people have more life experiences they can translate into good characters and good fiction than people twice their ages.

But if you want to write good characters, go out and observe people.  Observe how they dress, how they act, the way they talk, how they interact with others.  Of course, if you make friends with some of those people, or otherwise get to know them (coworkers, bosses, etc.), you will have even more to draw from, but, at the very least, go people watching while you are writing.

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