Showing posts with label character. Show all posts
Showing posts with label character. Show all posts

17 February 2015

Who Are These People In Our Heads?

by Jim Winter

When Northcoast Shakedown originally came out, I got accused by a coworker of basing most of my characters on people in the company where we worked. We worked at an insurance company. Nick Kepler scored free office space from an insurance company, and both were big property/casualty companies. However, I would be a little disturbed if the executives at TTG Insurance bore any resemblance to the ones at the company I discreetly refer to as BigHugeCo. The truth is the two executives who make Nick's life difficult in that story started out as stock bad bosses. That's how they got into trouble. Elaine, the secretary? She started out as someone for Nick to vent to while having a beer next door to TTG's offices.

The trouble with basing a character on an actual person too closely is that the writer then starts trying to bend a character to the real person, which makes for stilted, dull writing and poor dialog. A person may inspire a character, but if a writer is skilled or, at least, has good instincts, the character will take on a life of its own.

Sometimes, a central character is the author himself or herself. Sue Grafton has admitted as much about Kinsey Milhonne. She has stated that Kinsey is her if her life had taken another turn. Ditto for Spenser and Robert B. Parker. The darker tone of the earlier novels reflect a lot of the personal struggles Parker himself spoke of in that period of his life while later, when he was in a better place, the novels took on a lighter, clearly amused tone.

(Incidentally, I am not Nick Kepler. He's not as technically savvy, and I never had as many girlfriends as Nick. Though I think I had better luck with them.)

A clich├ęd piece of advice I used to get when I first started was to base a character on an actor. (Early on, I envisioned John Cusack as Kepler, though that faded away after a couple of stories.) Sometimes, that works as long as it's not someone over the top like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel. The trick here is to use the actor's persona as a jumping off point. Let's say you love Kaley Cuoco Sweeting from Big Bang Theory and want to drop her into your novel. Well, I'm sure Kaley will be flattered, but most likely, you really like how she plays Penny on the show. But if that combination of appearance and personality works for you in a tough-as-nail lady sheriff in rural Wisconsin, knock yourself out. Just know that a woman who has managed to get elected or appointed sheriff of a Midwestern county is going to already have a different background from an aspiring actress and waitress at a California Cheesecake Factory, particularly if there are no nerdy scientists around to color her life. (You might get away with a Sheldonesque coroner, but that's pushing it.)

Often, for me, characters just arise. They are functions of the story. Take a guy, put him in a situation, and ask yourself who he is and why he's there. More often than not, that's the first scene of a story as well as the birth of a story. It's not creating a role and then building a story around him. It's all about finding this imaginary person and creating a story to find out who he is. Nick Kepler is a function of a rainy night and having walked down at least two or three semi-rural highways in my time.

Sometimes, it really is a real person who inspires a character. Sherlock Holmes, probably the ultimate crime fiction protagonist in the English language, came from a rather quirky and highly intelligent doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew or knew about. A more extreme example comes from the 1990's. Mike Judge, the mind behind Office Space and King of the Hill, actually based the dimwitted, gravel-voiced Beavis on a guy he used to know (though I'm assuming the real Beavis was nowhere near as... um... intellectually challenged.  Heh-heh. Heh hmm heh. Fire!)

And sometimes, a character just demands to be written. You get a character like Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones whose personality is so clear that one has to write a story or three about him.

12 November 2013

The Continuous Dream

by Terence Faherty

Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing.  But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream. 

When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader.  The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.

Quiet Please.  Writer Visualizing.
All of which assumes that the author can see the character and setting and see them as clearly as a recent memory or a particularly vivid dream.  In the case of character, you can work from life, using your third-grade teacher or a man you saw on the bus this morning, or you can pick someone out of an ad or an old movie.  For settings, you can travel your neighborhood or the globe or pore over the writings of someone who has traveled.  Or, yes, you can make up either a character or a setting out of whole cloth.  However you start, at some point you have to see that character and that setting.  Really see them.  Your setting has to be a real place in your mind's eye and your characters real people.  (You'll also hear them and smell them and touch them, if you're writing from all your senses, but, for me, seeing comes first.)

When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting.  As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits. 

Grant, Gibson, and Saint
And visualization isn't only important for descriptions.  It also helps me avoid "continuity errors," which is a movie term for little mistakes that pop up in a scene when multiple takes are edited together.  Like the Gibson cocktail that appears and disappears in front of Cary Grant while he's talking with Eva Marie Saint in the club car in North By Northwest.   These things can happen in our writing, too, when we're not visualizing the actions we're describing.  A student once gave me a chapter in which a man yanks a derby down to his eyebrows in a show of determination.  So far so good, but a line or two later, the same character slaps his forehead in surprise.  Try slapping your forehead after you've yanked your derby down.  The author had gotten caught up in the dialogue of the scene (which was, incidentally, very good) and stopped visualizing.

Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story?  No.  That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene.  Or else a kind of magic.  And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page.  (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.)  I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it.  They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination. 

And my dream will live on independent of me.  Which is something worth seeing.  


08 August 2013

Some General Thoughts on Character

by Brian Thornton

 As I mentioned at the beginning of my previous turn in the Sleuthsayers blog's rotation, I've spent quite a bit of time lately prepping for a class on "character" which I will present as part of this coming Saturday's MWA-University Seattle event (an all-day session of writing craft-related classes presented by writers from all over the country). It ought to be a lot of fun. (If the fun-to-prep-work ratio is even close to one-to-one, it ought to be at least as much fun as the first day of vacation, a Rush concert, and winning the lottery, all rolled up in one!)

So, needless to say, I've been doing a whole lot of thinking about the literary/thematic notion of "character."

Which begs the question: just exactly what the hell is "character"?
Henry James around the time he wrote The Art of Fiction.

When faced with life questions such as these, I turn to those giants who have come before. In this case I  started with that sage of writing sages, Henry James, and see what he has to say about what constitutes literary "character" in his classic rumination The Art of Fiction (1884):

"What is character but the determination of incident? And what is incident but the illumination of character?"

Sounds a lot like Aristotle's definition of "plot," that it is "character revealed by action." Which makes sense, James being a product of his times and education. And gentlemen in 19th century America were hardly considered "educated" unless they had made a great study of the likes of Aristotle.

So, yes, helpful, but I was looking for something less esoteric. More concrete. So I went a bit more modern. Next I tapped noted writing teacher Dwight V. Swain, who had this to say in his wonderful book Creating Characters: How to Build Story People (1990):

"The core of character, experience tells me, lies in each individual story person's ability to care about something; to feel, implicitly or explicitly, that something is important."

So Swain has a different take on it: rather than tying the question of what constitutes character to how it is revealed (through action), he posits that a literary character is defined and in ways constituted by what that character cares about, its "passion." Again, helpful, but also a bit out there.

I needed something more....succinct and to the point. So who better to consult on this weighty issue than that most succinct of fiction writers, Ernest Hemingway?

Here's what Hemingway had to say about the question in Death in the Afternoon (1932):
Hemingway around the time he wrote Death in the Afternoon.

"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel."

Wow- kinda long-winded for Ol' Papa, there, huh? And believe it or not, I cut that quote off before it got out of hand. Our man Hemingway waved rhapsodic for several long sentences about why characters should not be "fake," but not really on how to keep them from being so. Since to him the point of fiction was to make it as "real" as possible, he even suggests that perhaps the true test of literary realism in a novel is how dull it is? I got news for Papa's ghost: I've read far too many "realistic" novels in that vein. As much as I love a whole passel of his work, I gotta disagree with him on that note.

Plus, you know, his quote is really not exactly on point.

So where to go next? I figured that if Hemingway couldn't get to the point of what "character" actually is, then perhaps his friend, rival and in many ways literary opposite, F. Scott Fitzgerald, might be able to do the trick. I love Fitzgerald's writing. Elegaic, expansive, deeply personal– perhaps he would give me a comprehensive view of what exactly literary character is?

This I got from Fitzgerald's notes for his final novel, the unfinished masterpiece, The Last Tycoon:
Fitzgerald around the time he began The Last Tycoon.

"Action is character."

That's it.


Who knew there was actually a topic out there on which Fitzgerald was orders of magnitude more succinct than his terse pal and occasional drinking buddy (during their Paris days), Hemingway? But again, not all that helpful, and kind of harkens back to the beginning with Henry James/Aristotle.

And then I found it. And I found it in, of all places, a wonderful blog published by an editor named C.L. Dyck. In an entry over there she sums up the words of such writing sages as Randy Ingermanson, Jeff Gerke and Rennie Browne on exactly this question, and does so quite well:

"Characters feel like real people. with a past, present, and future, uniquely varied in creative ways and revealed–as with real people–through the things they say and do."

Thanks C.L.! Way to put it all together! If you'd like to read her complete blog post on this topic, you can find it here. And in fact I highly recommend checking out any number of other interesting topics in her blog, which can be found cataloged here.

So there you have it, folks. My first step down the road to teaching a class on character: being able to speak intelligently as to what it actually is!

So how about you? What is your succinct working definition of "Character"? Feel to chime in with a response in the comments section below!

24 September 2011

Character, character, character

by Elizabeth Zelvin

My new blog brother, John M. Floyd, with whom I will be alternating Saturday posts on SleuthSayers, said in his introductory post last week that what matters most to him as a writer and as a reader is plot. For me, it’s character. I can think of many reasons this is so, and they fit right into the task of introducing myself on this new blog.

I write what I love to read.

Complex personalities and intense emotions fascinate me. I love how series characters and their relationships develop over time. I go back over and over to character-driven novels in which the characters seem so real that I experience a longing to be one of them—not to be, say, Harriet Vane or Judge Deborah Knott, but to dine in Oxford with Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey, adding my two cents (shillings? “P”?) to the conversation, or to hang out with my guitar on that North Carolina porch with Judge Deborah and her family, preferably singing along.

I am a character.
A few decades ago, I was relaxing in a hot tub with a couple of women friends (there’s a great Charles Addams cartoon of three witches doing the same in a cauldron), and one of them said, “What do you really want to be—not do, but be, ultimately?” Without any conscious thought, I said, “A wisewoman and an outrageous older woman.” I’ve been working on both these roles ever since. First I got the “Outrageous Older Woman” T-shirt. Then I wrote the song. And now it’s the title of the album of original songs I’m about halfway through recording.

I’m a shrink.
That’s the wisewoman side of me. I know many people believe that most therapists are crazy. I disagree. If your therapist is nuts or has a disastrous personal life, you’re not getting your money’s worth. Therapy is all about character (although I’ve heard some rollercoaster-ride plots while listening to clients’ stories). Therapists thrive on connection. They love their work because it opens windows onto the intimate world of others. That makes therapists a lot like storytellers. When I was active as a poet, I used to say, “All my stories are true.” As a novelist and short story writer, I say, “I make things up.” (Alternatively: “I tell lies for a living.”) But it’s really the same thing.

I was born to schmooze.
I’m a New Yorker. If I can say it, with my voice, my hands, or my fingers on the keyboard, I probably will. I love book launches and book tours, conventions and conferences, not for the books I’ll sell or the craft and business secrets I’ll learn, but for the schmoozing. Yes, I’m on Facebook. And I do love blogging.

I want to make people laugh and cry.
I doubt that reading exactly which model of AK-47 a fictional assassin used moves even the most technophilic reader to tears. Nor is even the most ingenious locked room puzzle hilarious. Suspense arouses emotion, certainly, and good thriller writers can sure ratchet up the anxiety, frustration, and dread as the reader turns the pages. Suspense works even if the character is so flat that the only possible answer to the question, “What’s he like?” is, “Well, he was Tom Hanks in the movie.” But I don’t like to be scared. I want to be moved. It’s the characters, their emotions, and their interactions with each other that move me, and I want to move readers of my books and stories in the same way.

“So what have you written, Liz?”
Having given you a character-driven introduction, I guess I should mention my publication credits. My mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler (and his friends, Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius) started with Death Will Get You Sober and includes Death Will Help You Leave Him and four short stories, the latest just out in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. The third novel, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is due in April 2012. My short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and various anthologies and e-zines. Three have been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The two most recent, both in EQMM, featured Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus, whose story continues in a YA novel (so far unpublished). A standalone story about art theft at the Met will appear in EQMM next year. My author website is at Along with SleuthSayers, I’ll continue to blog weekly at Poe’s Deadly Daughters.