Seeing your characters

C. Jordan

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Exactly where do they come from? Several different places, in my experience. I apologise in advance: I'm citing my own not-yet-finished writing here.

History provides some of the best examples. Want to write about a dictator? One way is to (1) read a biography of Stalin, or someone like that and (2) from there, when you begin writing about your character, ask yourself: "What would Stalin have done in this situation? Does my character behave the same?"

When I was getting started, it helped me out to think: "The Marshal intimidates people by staring into their eyes, because he's a bully, like Stalin was." Then I could write about how the Marshal rules people.

But I would not lock myself too much into what-would-Stalin-have-done, because I'm writing fiction, not history. In my opinion, when a fictional character is too obviously copied from some historical character, then that crosses the line between inspiration and plagiarism.

How to avoid that line? My suggestion is to give your characters time to outgrow their historical roots.

Another approach is from the archetypes. But there exists the same potential problem here: it's all to easy to say "I'm writing about the Tyrant" or "...the Sainted Virgin" or fill in your archetypal character; and then on so deciding, to let your story write itself. Which always results in a lower-quality story.

In my opinion there is a very thin line between archetype and cliché, which Ayn Rand called "bromide". But that would be another topic altogether.

I suggest therefore that you don't SET OUT to write about an archetypal character UNLESS you see a way to write about that archetype that has not been done before. If you cannot find something completely original, then at least find a road less travelled and an approach that was rarely done before.

Besides, an archetype by definition over-generalises. It's more interesting to read about heroic men and women than about Heroes and Heroines, at least it is for me. I can think of Howard Roark as archetypically the Ronin (the young warrior in rebellion against his society) and that works, but I PREFER to see Howard Roark as a character, sui-generis. And that fits with Ayn Rand's statement that she created Howard Roark, the character for the sake of the character.

With that in mind, inspiration from actual people is CRUCIAL. I have named several characters after real people, only translated their names, so "Timothy" became "Timofei," "Freeman" became "Erk'ak." Or sometimes I give "real people" another names. This has given me the basis for many characters. I'm sure we could all find a legion of characters among the people we know; yes, even the folks who live next door.

If I'd said that around Diana Hsieh, the denunciations would be already flying. Did I just advocate naturalism? Are we supposed to passively record what the folks next door do all day, all the boring stuff? Are we about to write a boring, naturalistic story that defies heroism and throws obscenity into all of our faces?

The above shamelessly misquoted Mr. Jordan, which is typical for the NoodleFool blog. What he actually said was "this has given me the basis for many characters." Emphasis mine. My experience is that a character must grow out of his roots. That was true for characters inspired from history; we can't just flog an historical cliché into the ground. And this is also true for characters inspired by real people.

I'm not writing the biography of Stalin, and I'm also not writing the real biography of Timothy Ramey or Freeman McCluskey. I simply named characters after them. And from there, I had the freedom to take these characters where I needed them to go. This brought the responsibility to develop these characters as I wrote on about them.

So in the final analysis, I believe a writer should BEGIN by thinking of someone he/she knows; and then by the end have a distinct character. But that is not Naturalism.

This is in fact something Ayn Rand did. For Ellsworth Toohey, she was inspired by 4 separate men and from that created a composite character. She was inspired by an anonymous woman to create Peter Keating; and just from the gender-change we see that she has taken the character off in another direction. (This was based on Barbara Branden's biography, of course.)

And the fourth major source of a character is from the plot itself. By this I mean if you were (example) writing about James Bond, and you decided arbitrarily that he was in Liberia, then you would do well to ask yourselves these questions. What kind of characters are we likely to meet in Liberia? That gives us a broad list. Then, "Which of these characters are likely to interact with Bond?"

As you develop your plot, and you know EXACTLY what Bond will be doing in Liberia, you will find out which of these characters the plot needs. One that comes to mind is the ever-present man at the airport taking bribes. I can see any number of ways this character would be a challenge for Bond to overcome.

I'll stop there, because my point was to illustrate one way in which a character can grow directly out of the plotline itself. Not knowing a plot, I might never have noticed that particular character. And incidentally, that is usually where I find the most interesting characters.

I've learned (from my own mistakes) that the best approach is to treat all such characters (who spontaneously appear) as minor characters until you see otherwise. But I find the spontanaeity of having them appear absolutely essential in writing. Because I think of writing as a journey, and when we travel, we meed unexpected people and see unexpected things.

According to Barbara Branden, Ayn Rand used this approach exactly once: to create Tony/Wet Nurse from Atlas Shrugged. Barbara Branden stated that she considered Tony to be one of the most endearing characters in Rand's canon. I agree. He was. And that was one thing that led me to try this approach to characters.

The difficulty with this approach (in practice) is that one needs to know when to take minor characters off stage and put them in a green room. Ideally minor characters should come back later in the story, either to continue their original role (why they were created in the first place) or to take on a new role.

Not always, of course. Some minor character only walk onto stage, shout "Fire!", and leave the story forever. There's nothing wrong with that. In my opinion, there is no rule to guide any of us. Only an understanding that some minor characters may reappear as a minor character, others will take on a bigger role, and yet others will leave the story when their part on stage is done. And that it is the writer's responsibility to judge, case by case, what kind of character he or she is writing about.

Final thoughts: to summarise my general approach, I believe one can CREATE characters in any combination of the above mentioned ways, and that a writer can only DEVELOP a character by working on that character, and re-working.

Ayn Rand would have planned all her characters in advance. I tried that approach, and the results were embarrassing. I could not come up with a coherent story with meaningful characters if I planned everything step-by-step in advance. When I began to use an APPROXIMATE plan as a guideline, and then just started the damn writing, then I found that problem was solved.

This approach takes longer, in the short term. It requires re-thinking the character, as an individual. It requires re-thinking to make sure the character is still integrated in the rest of your story. It requires asking what makes this character worth writing about, even briefly. What makes this character different from the standard clichés. (From time to time, we must also ask if this character still has a role. And if not, I suggest putting the character back into the green room unless/until the story needs him/her again.)

Of course, we don't have to spend as much of this time on minor characters. But even minor characters should have enough depth to carry a role. By definition minor characters require less thought than major characters. Less thought is still more than no thought.

Yes, this approach takes longer. But in the end, the result has worked very well for me, so far.

Within 6 months (counting down) you will have the opportunity to see for yourselves.

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