11 July 2011

On the Origin of Characters

Where do characters come from?

It seems like such a simple thing, both to readers and to many authors.  Where do characters come from?  The simple answer is that, like flesh and blood characters (Yep, he's quite a character, my Uncle Bernie!"), they are born, for better or worse.

I recently read a blog posting about this subject by Danielle Raver, in which she discusses how one of the three protagonists in her novel Brother, Betrayed was "born"--Check it out:

So, in authorly fashion, I decided to borrow the idea.  That's original.  No, seriously: Danielle's post made me think about where my own characters originated.  I've always known deep down inside, of course, but those secrets are sworn to secrecy.  I don't even tell myself.

For me and my novels, characters come from two sources (Here's your "duh" moment, loyal readers): I invent them or I really invent them.

In the former, I mean that I compose the various aspects of a character (speech patterns, appearance, behavior, quirks, personality, world view, fashion sense, psychological motivations, etc.) from different people I know or have known.  It often makes for interesting results.

For one example, in my literary novel A Beautiful Chill (coming in January 2012, or a few days after, from Shelfstealers Books), one major minor character (Is that semantically correct?) is Lance Albright, an old writer of former fame now spending a year as writer-in-residence at the campus in the novel.  Early in the story he is described thus:

Albright had published fourteen novels and in his prime he was a notorious sybarite. What Eric saw was a surly old man—much like his father, perhaps, though taller and much plumper in his eccentric Southwestern fashion, a barrel-chested Santa Claus with a golden baldness and a wide, white-bearded, bespectacled face, a loud man who growled without opening his mouth and who seemed to prefer that people left him alone.

In reality (a fantasy if ever there was one!), Albright is a compilation of several real people. I doubt that any of them read this blog so it may be permissible to name names, so I shall.  The appearance of Albright comes from the actual visiting poet at the campus (real school: Wichita State University), Paul Zimmer combined with regular faculty member Philip Schneider for the Western themed fashion.  The rakish sybarite aspects of Albright come from visiting fiction writer at WSU, Louis B. Jones, who while consulting with him about my latest manuscript seemed more interested int the female colleague of mine walking by outside his office and so spent the majority of our time asking questions about her.  (Sorry, Louis, but it's the truth.)  Many of the quips Albright says come from the standard repertoire of quips by faculty member Stephen Hathaway, with whom I had two fiction workshops, including the opening chapters of A Beautiful Chill.  There are lesser aspects of Albright which were snatched here and there from my colleagues (MFA students), faculty members (not all of them in the English department), and my own twisted imagination.

In the interest of full-disclosure and the pleasure of fiction creation and fiction reading, please don't sue me.  You and I both know it's all in fun.  I wish you all well, as I wish you wish me well, too, as a fellow author.  Besides, Albright has a very good time during his year's visit on campus.  Don't believe me?  Buy it, read it, review it.

In the latter case, I completely invent a character from scratch.  Oh, I suppose there is a point of origin, perhaps in stock characters or stereotypes.  Then I build on it.  As the story goes on and I get to know the shaped-from-clay character, he or she often develops his/her own personality, behavior, quirks, etc.

For an example of this, I offer my latest, a novel titled After Ilium (available from Fantasy Island Book Publishing about now) and the two main characters, Alex Parris and his lover/nemesis, Elena.  This is an example, also, of a story being plotted prior to character development.  That is, I knew how the story would progress so I chose characters that would fit into that plot.

In After Ilium, a young man, fresh from college graduation, gets his wish to visit the historic site of ancient Troy (called "Ilium" in every other breath).  On the way, he meets the older woman, Elena, who he draws into conversation and lets her draw him into an affair.  He thinks big plans, a future with her while she clearly is interested only in a quick dalliance.  When they tour the site of Ilium, Alex plays historian and bores Elena, so she tries to get his attention back--which only causes Alex the first of many troubles as he tries to return to her.  No spoilers!

The point is that I needed an innocent, naive young man to play Alex.  I have never known such a person (except, perhaps, myself [he sheepishly confesses]) and so I could not draw upon such real people.  Alex majored in History so I needed to have him sound like a history fanatic.  As for Elena, I had the image/appearance in mind first (no, not from surfing porn!): she had to be Greek-ish and voluptuous, beautiful in a more mature way than the svelte co-eds Alex has known.  The exotic appeal would be irresistible to Alex.  They make a great couple...as long as he gives her all the attention she did not get from her busy husband.

Two characters that are stock figures, sure.  But as we get to know them in the story, we get to know them: they take on individual characteristics, develop personalities, act in ways  consistent with their personalities and experiential backgrounds.  In short, they become real characters--or at least more realistic.  In a story where the plot and story arc is set, I plugged in the kind of characters that would make it work.

Curious to see how I pull it off?  Buy it, read it, review it.  Then get all of your family and friends to buy it, read it, review it.  And have them tell their family and friends to buy it, read it, review it.  And so on....



I got the first review of AFTER ILIUM.  "Yea, me!" (imagine kindergartener voice)

5.0 out of 5 stars An Anti-Romance with Passion and AdventureJuly 15, 2011
Amazon Verified Purchase 
This review is from: After ILium (Kindle Edition)
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was well-paced and the characters were engaging and realistic. Don't read it if you are expecting a sappy romance novel. Passion, violence, adventure, history, mythology, tragedy and betrayal couldn't be woven together into a more enjoyable tale. After Ilium has a wide audience of readers it will please.


Thanks, Danielle! I'm glad you liked it. Definitely NOT for YA, right?

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