Creating Convincing Characters (Part I)

The difference between being a writer and being everyone else is that when you’re a writer, people pay you to hear your opinions. That’s true whether you’re writing op eds, or whether you’re a novelist. I’m creating fantasy worlds but, like all fantasy worlds, they’re more real than not. What does that mean? The places might not exist in “real” life, the characters might all be figments of my imagination, but they come from my heart. From, in other words, my place of truth.

I get a lot of questions: who did I base this character on, or that? The answer is, there’s no one to one comparison. None of my characters are based on anyone I know. Rather, they’re the collective products of aggregate experience. They might not be who I am but they feel, more or less, how I feel. To the extent that my characters are relatable, they’re tapping into common experience. Growing up, I thought I was the only person with my problems…until I opened a book. Sometimes it was Susan Forward (the shrink of “Toxic Parents” fame) convincing me that, regardless of what my parents claimed, and regardless of what their enablers claimed, abusing me wasn’t okay–and it wasn’t normal. Sometimes it was Lloyd Alexander, showing me (in the Chronicles of Prydain) that values mattered. I raised myself, in effect. On books.

I’ve created more than a few bookworm characters for that reason. Not out of some overly intellectualized desire to replicate my formative years; you couldn’t pay me enough. Rather, I create what feels natural. My characters are more than the sum of their parts, but they come from me. We’re all familiar with the axiom, write what you know. What does it mean to you? To me it means, create from a place of authenticity.

Your character’s an alien? Fine, make him look as crazy as you want. But don’t make him a prisoner of war, if you’ve never so much as read a book on Andersonville. I can always tell when someone’s writing outside their scope; there’s no nuance. They’re going by what they think a person in a certain situation might do, how they think a person in a certain situation might feel; as a result, their character(s) are pretty one dimensional. Our fantasies rarely contain much nuance; in real life, the heroes don’t actually look into the mirror and think “I’m a hero.” Likewise, most villains–just like in real life–have their own point of view.

And that’s really the critical element, when you’re planning your story: conflict, macro and micro. Macro, obviously, is the storyline. But how do the character’s own challenges, strengths and weaknesses, etc. interact with it? Love triangles are popular as a plot device, because they do a good–if arguably lazy–job of showcasing this additional (inside to outside) and much more vital plot. After all, if all we wanted was loads of action we’d all just read newspapers. We want someone to love, someone to hate, someone to root for.

What do you think?