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Marginal Notes

Meet your Characters

Once again, the comments section of last month’s Writer Unboxed article sparked enough ideas to inspire a whole new article. In this case, someone asked how you let your characters’ cultures shape who they are without creating stereotypes – slow-moving southerners, taciturn Yankees, or excessively polite Canadians?

The obvious answer is that culture isn’t the only influence on your characters. Just show these other elements -- education level, childhood trauma, various accidents of birth – at play as well. We’re all a mishmash of all sorts of different influences, and how they work together or against one another is what makes us unique.

But this raises the larger question of how you balance all these elements, showing how they reinforce and undermine one another? How do you turn all these variables into a single, plausible person? I’ve seen too many characters who are the product of a single source -- psychopaths with childhoods filled with sex and violence or emotionally needy characters who lost their parents at an early age. While a single influence might occasionally predominate – abusive childhoods do sometimes create psychopaths – all your characters need some balance to be individuals.

A lot of writers get around the question by simply basing their characters on people they know. And a lot of good literature can be written this way – Harper Lee’s Dill was Truman Capote, after all. But basing your characters on real people has its limits, besides the risk of having your friends recognize themselves when the book comes out. Even when you base a character on someone you know well, your own imagination is going to have to fill in a lot of the details. If you’re not consciously aware how much of the character you’re supplying, then your characters can easily wind up being mostly you. This gives them a sameness that’s hard for you to see because you’re too close to it.

Of course, many writers are comfortable with having at least their main character be mostly them -- a lot of novels start with the question, “What would I do if this happened to me.” And, again, a lot of good books get written this way – I suspect Kinsey Milhone is made up in large part of Sue Grafton. But even if your main character is essentially you, you still have to create a plausible cast of minor characters, and they can’t all be you. One reason Sue Grafton sells as well as she does is that her other characters are as distinct as Kinsey.

Basing your main character on yourself carries another danger: ego gratification. I see books by a lot of clients whose heroes are brave, intelligent, make all the right moves, save the day, and win romance in the end -- fulfilling all the author’s fantasies. And while even this approach has its place – think Bond, James Bond – you’re much more likely to sell if your main character is flawed enough to be sympathetic. Most of us find it hard to look into ourselves and then parade our flaws to our readership.

So how do you take conscious control of the influences that shape your characters? First, a word of warning – don’t overthink this. If you have a character you just know, whose head you can inhabit naturally, don’t mess with that. The time to start thinking about how you build characters is when the ones you have aren’t working. When you reread your manuscript and realize that your characters all feel the same, for instance. Or when you get feedback from critiquers or agents saying that the characters just didn’t grab them. That’s the time to start thinking about where your characters come from.

The place to start is to bear in mind all the different influences that could come to bear on your character. What was their home life like in childhood? How did they do in school? Were they the first one or the last one picked to be on the team? Did they have siblings, and how were they treated relative to them? Did their parents fight about money? What made them what they are?

Remember that character creation can’t be done mechanically – choose one influence from column A and another from column B, spackle over the seams, and call it a person. But there are other ways you can invest your imagination in understanding where your characters come from.

For instance, write a scene from a key moment in your character’s childhood, one that your readers may never see and your character may not even remember. Get into their head when they weren’t yet quite themselves. You can also try interviewing your main characters. Just write out a dialogue in which you ask them questions about their past and how they feel about it. Or you could write up scenes that have nothing to do with your story, just to see how your characters act when they’re not caught up in the action. Write out the scene of their first kiss, say, or what they do on their day off. Or pick two of your characters, put them together in a stalled elevator, and see how they get along. Spend time with them away from your story. Learn to inhabit their heads.

What I’m suggesting is less a way of creating a character from scratch and more a way of getting to know the characters you’ve created better. As you explore who they are, you may find that they are behaving more like real, individual people. When you put them back into the story you want to tell, they may even start telling you just what their story is.