November 12, 2007

My Characters And Me

It's that instant when you get a great idea for a story; you're in the shower, in a meeting at work, or waiting for someone to quit talking to you so you can nod and walk away. Yes, we writers are always writing, even when we're not in front of our computers. For me, when that moment of inspiration hits, and I'm able to ditch my responsibilities and scurry off to find a pen and a scrap of paper to jot my ideas on, my characters begin to come to life.

In my head, their personalities are formed first. I'll imagine someone with the fortitude to rescue an entire nation, or merely reach for a ball in a sewer, or whatever the plot calls for. I’ll then see that person's human shape assemble itself in that section of the brain reserved for a writer's special talents. For me, it's the character’s behavior and traits which dictate their physical characteristics.

In my latest story, my protagonist, Roger, is a former police officer in the process of grieving. He's not very active because he finds it difficult to get out of bed everyday because he does not have a whole lot to live for. He does not work and lives off his police pension. He becomes overweight because of his sedentary lifestyle and the fact that he does not take care of himself. Later, he takes a job as his life and spirits improve. After a few months he begins to lose weight and gain some muscle tone. Roger's emotions dictate his physical appearance in this example. As the writer, I had to be true to Roger and describe him as was necessary based on his emotional state of being; heavy at first, but then slim and in shape, only because he changed as a person and became active again.

That is just one example of how my characters form. There are, however, shortcuts to my characterizations. In my first novel, Sergeant Fukes is based on a sergeant I had in the police department, physically, and psychologically only by half. His personality is an amalgam of both my squad sergeant’s and another sergeant I knew at one time in my career. The two were dissimilar in looks and persona, and I thought is would be ideal to combine their mannerisms into one person because they both would have handled certain situations in the story very differently. I thought their dissimilar habits would make for an interesting character. One sergeant was a brown nose who never would question a superior, and the other was a stickler for department regulations which very often were obscure and rarely used. The man I created was a rigid, rule worshipping nebbish who also could not say no to anyone who outranked him or was senior to him. This created friction as there were policies to be obeyed, but he did not have the fortitude to enforce them with anyone who wasn’t below him in rank. As a result, he was ineffective as a supervisor.

Finally, instead of shaping characters from my imagination, or basing them on other people, more than once I based a protagonist on myself. Writing is indeed therapy, and using the space of entire novel to reconcile my religious faith or my misspent youth does have a healing effect. Also, I hope it may be enticing material for someone to read. Another benefit of using me as inspiration for a character is that it is less likely that someone would think I wrote about them.

These are just a few examples of how I create characters. Once my central character is born, he needs family, friends, co-workers, etc, and they seem to spring up around him and fill in the spaces in the story neatly along the way through each chapter as I write them. Notice how I said “they spring up around him.” That’s because I have yet to write a story completely around a woman. Maybe it’s because I’m still writing about myself, or maybe it’s because the only story I want to tell about a woman will be based entirely on someone I’m very close to and I don’t think I want her to read it yet. It’ll be tough to keep that manuscript from her because my wife reads every one of my stories. Oh great, she’s going to read this post too.

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Kristyn said...

Writing is certainly therapy. I don't think I'm brave enough to write characters based upon myself, mostly because I don't find myself all that interesting. It never occurred to me, however, that someone I know might read something I write and think I wrote about them. I do base the occassional character on the personality or flaws of people I know that might be in a similar situation to the ones my characters are in, but I don't generally write characters based on friends or family.

I think for me, though, characterizations come somewhat easily because I've been playing Role Playing Games for the past 9 years. When you've had to create as many characters as I have, and trust me, I have hundreds, it begins to come as second nature... whether those characters are good or not is another story entirely!

Teige Benson said...

I enjoyed hearing the way your character's develop. It's real and thus, a great way for the reader to actually "see" them.

It gives me a lot to think about in my own writing. Thanks.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kristyn,
It's always good to hear from you. As far as basing a charatcer on myself, I don't do this because I think I am interesting, I do it because I feel it is cathartic in a way to out myself in situations as a fictionalized version of myself to work out a problem or to confirm an ideal. Also, others have indeed read things I wrote and asked me if a certain character is based on them. Usually the answer is no. Oddly, the folks I really do base characters on never catch onto the fact that used them in my fiction. Or maybe they just don't say anything.
As far as role playing is concerned, my friends and I played Dungeons & Dragons throughout most of high school together. I am still mourning the loss of a 12th level Ranger I had named Killer Dog Aleutius who died when snuffed out by a dragon. My other characters carrieded his body around in a preserved state for a year in an attempt to find a wizard who could revive him, but to no avail. So, you and I have something in common as far as character creation. I hope NaNoWriMo is going good for you. Thanks for the comment. -Mike.

footiam said...

Characters can be easily created but whether they have depth or not is another matter. I do think a writer must have a keen sense of observation and must be very sensitive to achieve that.When a writer based a character on himself, there should be no question on whether the character has depth or not. The character is him and if it has no depth, then that's because not everyone has character. In any case, I do think a writer with a tormented soul like D.H. Lawrence often come up with something outstanding because such writers write about themselves; sometimes, it[s just a need to express, most of the times, it's more to exorcise something too painful and eventually, to come to terms with it. It is through these writings that the writer sought to be understood by people, especially by those around him in order that there will be peace in his raging soul, that is if you believe there is a soul.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Teige, Thanks for reading my post, and I appreciate your generous comment. Have a terrific day and thanks for reading my blog. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Footiam,
You raise an interesting point. Characters can indeed be easily created, but may often lack depth. This is why fiction writers often strive to find a model for the persons they create. As the character comes to life, it becomes the writer's responsibility to nuture the spirit of their creation, and in a sense, get to know him/her, and to use their talents to put the charcter in motion within the story. All of this depends on the writer's ability, and we writer's seek to grow and learn with every project. Thanks for the excellent input; and thanks for stopping by. -Mike

AntiBarbie said...

I think I write kind of weird. I come up with the end of my stories and then build the rest of the story and characters up.

I think your way of piecing a character together sounds very logical and affective. I so wish my brain worked like that!

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi AntiBarbie,
I don't think that having an ending to a story before you write is weird. I typically have a strong idea of where my story will end up before I begin. However, in my personal method, I let my characters drive the story. I do have exceptions, though. In my lastest novel which I am about to shop around, I knew that my character had to tell a story to someone, and it had to be in a particular setting in order to wrap up the details of the plot. I have a tag line which I had at the header of this blog at one time. It said: "In writing, you follow the rules until you ned to break them." Essentially that means that there are no real rules. Keep writing from the ending first. That is your style. Embrace it. Always great to hear from you AntiBarbie. Thanks for stopping by.

Zathyn Priest said...

Inventing characters is an art in itself and it's interesting to read how other writers go about the process. Sometimes I get an idea for a story first and the character is born second, or the character is my first-born and the story created around him/her.

I also role-play my characters, scenes, conversations, etc. I often wonder what anyone would think should they look through a gap in my curtains and see this odd behaviour in action!

It also seems many writings inject aspects of themselves into characters. Drawing from personal pain or pleasure certainly adds the three dimensional depth we're always trying to attain.

Congratulations on your short story becoming a movie!

Best Wishes,
Zathyn Priest

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Zathyn,
It's a pleasure to meet you. Role playing your characters sounds like a very interesting way to get inside the "head" of the person you created. Though, like you, I'd be afraid if someone walked in on me or peeked in the window if I was in the middle of "acting out." What is interesting about your method is that someone else commented that her methods of creating charcters comes from her days when she played fantasy role-playing games. In a sense, she was role playing her characters as you do. I enjoy conversing with other writers such as yourself in the blogging world, and I will be reading your blog "A Never Quiet Mind." Thank you for reading my blog, and I look forward to futher conversations with you. --Mike

Katana said...

I loved this post! I have a tendency to come up with characters and not move beyond that into an actual story... so in the back of my notebook are a ton of characters who's stories have yet to be told! Nuts... no follow through.

I've never seen a description of the writing process so artfully done.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike
May be I'm going about it all backwards. Myself, when I write I know the beginning and the end, it's what is in between I struggle with. Characters come up as I write. From where? Memories, research, who knows. Experience can certainly play into it (to a degree of course) and talking to my significant other for advice has another huge role in it. :-)
As usual Mike, another excellent post.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Katana, It's nice to meet you; and thank you so much for such a nice compliment. May I suggest that if you have an old notebook full of characters, try placing sheets of paper sude by side with the descriptions of each on each sheet of paper. Then as you compare the two, you may find that they either have differences that would make for an intersting conflict, and thus, a story, or common goals to pursue, making for another story where they need to team up and achieve their goals together. I do this sometimes, and it works, especially when I am fresh out of story ideas. Let me know if this works. Have a great day, and thanks for stopping by. I will check out your blog later today. --Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,
I would guess that most writers have a good strong beginning, and a terrific ending, and that the middle is what's fuzzy until the hard work of writing fills the gap. I thought I was the one who worked backwards. However, in my crazed mind, I develop people first, and then explore their worlds. You have an amazing sense of setting, style, and emotion in your writing. Mine method is more impulsive, and I rely on the reader's experiences to fill in the spaces with scene, setting, and even action, in certain circumstances. Yes, we writers take different paths when we write. For that reason, many different methods and techniques are required, as well as a vivid imagination. Thank you JD. -Mike