Draw Characters From The Strongest Sources

Every drama requires a cast. The cast may be so huge or it may be an intimate cast of two. Where do you get these people, and how do you know they’ll make good characters? Here are the four key sources you'll need to create great characters. by Nancy Kress
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Every drama requires a cast. The cast may be so huge, as in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, that the author or editor provides a list of characters to keep them straight. Or it may be an intimate cast of two. (In ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ Jack London managed with one person and a dog.) But whatever the size of your cast, you have to assemble it from somewhere.

Where do you get these people? And how do you know they’ll make good characters?

You have four key sources: yourself, real people you know, real people you hear about and pure imagination.

In one sense, every character you create will be yourself. You’ve never murdered, but your murderer’s rage will be drawn from memories of your own extreme anger. Your love scenes will contain hints of your own past kisses and sweet moments. That scene in which your octogenarian feels humiliated will draw on your experience of humiliation in the eighth grade, even though the circumstances are totally different and you’re not even consciously thinking about your middle-school years. Our characters’ emotions, after all, draw on our own emotions.

Sometimes, however, you will want to use your life more directly in your fiction, dramatizing actual incidents. Charles Dickens used his desperate stint as a child laborer in Victorian England to write David Copperfield. Nora Ephron, bestselling author of Heartburn, was frank about basing her story of adultery and desertion on her own desertion by husband Carl Bernstein (fiction as public revenge).

Should you create a protagonist based directly on yourself? The problem with this—and it is a very large problem—is that almost no one can view himself objectively on the page. As the writer, you’re too close to your own complicated makeup.

It can thus be easier and more effective to use a situation or incident from your life but make it happen to a character who is not you. In fact, that’s what the authors cited earlier largely have done. Rachel Samstat, Ephron’s heroine, is sassier and funnier when left by her husband than any real person would be. You can still, of course, incorporate aspects of yourself: your love of Beethoven, your quick temper, your soccer injuries. But by applying your own experience to a different protagonist, you can take advantage of your insider knowledge of the situation, and yet gain an objectivity and control that the original intense situation, by definition, did not have.

Many famous characters are based, in part, on real people. The key words here are ‘‘in part.’’ Like characters based on yourself, fictional creations based on others seem to be most effective when they’re cannibalized. Using people exactly as they are can limit both imagination and objectivity. So instead of using your Uncle Jerome as is, combine his salient traits with those of other acquaintances or with purely made-up qualities. This has several advantages.

First, you can craft exactly the character you need for your plot. Suppose, for instance, that your actual Uncle Jerome is quick-tempered and cuttingly witty when angered and remorseful later about the things he said. But your character would work better if he were a stranger to remorse, staying angry in a cool, unrepentant way. Combine Uncle Jerome with your friend Don, who can really hold a grudge. Combining characters gives you flexibility.

This is how Virginia Woolf created Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway). Her primary source, according to biographer Quentin Bell, was family friend Kitty Maxse. But Woolf also wrote in her diary that she drew on Lady Ottoline Morrell for Clarissa: ‘‘I want to bring in the despicableness of people like Ott.’’ Similarly, Emma Bovary (Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) and spymaster George Smiley (John le Carré’s series) are composites of people their creators knew.

A second advantage to blending traits is that your family and friends are less likely to recognize themselves and become upset. It also helps avoid potential lawsuits.

In addition to composites of people you know, you can also base characters on people you have only heard or read about. This can work well because you’re not bound by many facts. You’re making up the character, with the real person providing no more than a stimulus for inspiration.

Say you read about a woman whose will leaves $6 million to a veterinary hospital she visited only once, 40 years earlier, with her dying cat. You never met this woman. All you have is the newspaper story. But something about the situation has caught your attention. What kind of person would do that? You begin to imagine this woman: her personality and history, what that cat must have meant to her, why there were no other people important enough to her to leave them any inheritance.

Before long, you’ve created a full, interesting and poignant character, someone you might want to write about. Yes, you started with secondhand information—but now the character is fully yours.

As Charlotte Brontë famously remarked, reality should ‘‘suggest’’ rather than ‘‘dictate’’ characters.

Creating purely invented characters is similar to basing characters on strangers. With strangers, a small glimpse into another life sparks the imagination. Made-up characters, too, usually begin with the spark of an idea. The writer then fans the spark into a full-blown person.

William Faulkner, for example, had a sudden mental image of a little girl with muddy drawers up in a tree. That image became Caddy in The Sound and the Fury.

Characters usually present themselves encased in at least the rudiments of a fictional situation. Caddy is up in a tree (why?). The deceased lady has left $6 million to an animal hospital. You have something here to work with. Your next task is to look hard at this character/situation in order to decide if the character is strong enough to sustain a story.

Excerpted from Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint © 2005 by NANCY KRESS, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.

This article appeared in the May/June issue of Writer's Digest.Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

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