Allan Mayer’s Weblog

One Year of Blogging (3)

Posted on: April 19, 2009

 

Is Novel Writing Character Building?

So we have estabished the novel’s setting and it’s genre. Now to people it with characters.

Your story should be character driven, in which case you will find that the situations which start to form in your mind already come from what those characters are ‘about.’ All novels, whether they be thrillers, romances, Science Fiction, or whatever, should reflect life in that they deal with what happens when person A, with a certain agenda, meets with person B, with his particular motivations.

Some characters will mix well, but what really drives the story forward is conflict.

This doesn’t mean that your major protagonists always have to be a ‘goodie’ and a ‘baddie.’ Conflict can arise between characters who are really well matched- Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy being the classic examples of this.

As I am no Jane Austen (and who is?) I have stuck with clearly defining who wears the black hat and who the white from the outset.

But it is still important, having said that, to remember two things: firstly, unless you’re writing pantomime, characters never believe that they themselves are wrong or evil, because people in real life don’t think that way. Apparently Al Capone saw himself as a great public benefactor, and I’m sure that Robert Mugabe will think that he has been a great president.

Secondly, a character MUST have shades- even a bad guy has endearing features, and a good guy has flaws and even vices.

I once read a suggestion in a ‘how to write’ book that you could keep your characters differentiated by basing each one on the characteristics of a different star sign.

Now I wouldn’t want to knock someone who has taken the trouble to write a book which helps people to create, but personally I would find basing my characters on the supposed characteristics of their star signs about as useful as basing them upon those of the seven dwarves.

The problem with using this sort of formula is that it could lead to you not creating characters, but types.

Yes, you need consistency, and yes, the old cliche is true that there is a point where the characters take on a ‘life of their own.’ BUT… realistic characters, in literature as in life, have contradictions.

I have just been reading an article:

http://digg.com/arts_culture/The_Art_of_Character_Depth

where this very subject is being discussed with reference to film characters. Hannibal Lecter tops the list- a monster, but a cultured gentleman. Similarly, there is the much earlier example of Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ He takes part in gang warfare, rapes minors, terrorises an elderly intellectual, but doesn’t half love a bit of Beethoven!

And these contradictions not only give depth to the character- they are the hook upon which the whole premise of the book hangs.

In ‘Tasting the Wind,’ Della causes the death of a patient in her care (listen to this in the first video on this blog.) It would probably be classed as manslaughter. Without giving too much away, when we next meet Della she is a born again Christian. She has also developed from being an abuser, to the level of potential murderer. How are these related?

The backstory that emerges is of her seeking absolution, being told at an evangelical rally that her sins are forgiven, and spending a lifetime being tortured by her attempts to balance this against the weight of what she has done.

So if star signs and the Seven Dwarves don’t work for you, where do you get your characters from? You could always do what successful writers have done down the ages, which is to use a combination of experience and imagination.

It is well known that Shakespeare based his Falstaff on a man called Sir John Oldcastle, that Thomas Hardy drew heavily upon his background, D.H. Lawrence based the characters of ‘Sons and Lovers’ and ‘Women in Love’ upon himself, his family and his social set and (this one’s for the kids,) Andy Cope’s ‘Spy Dog,’ Lara, is a family pet.

I never met Della. She is a combinaion of 3-4 people I have known (not all female,) plus a large dose of imagination.

Obviously, if you are developing an unsympathetic character based upon someone you know, no connection should be left which can be used in court! Think what you want to say about the character. If your model is an obese woman, make your character a thin man. You can do that without losing essential elements of the character, and it will open up other avenues which will add complexity.

There are even bits of me in Della: large frame (Euphemism alert!!!,) love of gadgets. but that, hopefully, is as far as it goes.

That’s all for this meandering. I must admit, regardless of what I said, the idea of bestselling novelists basing their characters on the Seven Dwarves has somewhat fired my imagination…

 

Originalyl published on Tuesday, 29 April 2008. If you want to know where this slightly perverse train of thought led to just google ‘the DaDisney Code.’

 

 

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