Writing combines two basic things: good story and good characters. Movies provide a great way to illustrate this point. We’ve all seen movies that had a terrific story, but the characters were flat, two-dimensional or totally unbelievable so the story labored and never quite got off the ground. Or, conversely, we’ve seen so-so stories that had brilliant characters; the movie itself may have been totally forgettable but the characters stayed with you. The same is true in writing (where, of course, all movies get their start). Any story-telling, whether visual or literary, needs a strong story and equally strong characters.
Another similarity between writing a good character and portraying one in film or on stage is being true to the character. If you’ve studied acting or even read lightly about the craft, you may have heard discussions about this. It’s all about finding out who the character is intrinsically, then speaking and acting in accord with that innermost essence. Can you imagine Rhett Butler worrying that his daffodils were wilting? Or Scarlett O’Hara bursting into tears because someone didn’t like her dress? Knowing what we know about those characters, neither of those actions would fit; they would not be “true” to the essence of the characters. In writing, as I’m shaping the character, I have to be constantly aware of that trueness; I have to hold every action and every line of dialog up to the standard for that character and make sure it’s authentic to them.
But then again, sometimes the characters can surprise you!
Here are some common questions I get asked about characters.
Do you model your characters on people you know?
Rarely. I have begun the development of a character with a real person in mind, but very quickly the character evolves and develops far beyond that initial core, so even though some similarities remain, the two are vastly different. More often a character may be a composite, having a few qualities from one person, more from another. The major truth is, however, that characters really do take on a life of their own and stand apart from anyone I actually know.
Do you model your characters on yourself?
Again, rarely. I could probably tease out a few qualities of my own from any of my protagonists, but what I would find would be those qualities that are pretty basic to all human beings.
Do you like your characters?
My emotional reactions to my different characters are as varied as the human population. Some of them I love, some I pretty much hate, some I like and some I barely notice.
Do all characters have flaws?
If you want them to be interesting (and human!), they do. Remember Lancelot in Camelot? At the first he was agonizingly perfect (and humbly proud of it), proclaiming his invincibility to any arrows of love or war. It’s only after he falls in love with Guinevere that he gets really interesting and must grapple with his own flaws and the mess they make of his friendship with Arthur and his life. The flaw is what creates the conflict that must be overcome and also leaves room for growth. The flaw not only shows us that the character is human, but is also the opening for change, for introspection and for resolution. As Marion Woodman says, “God comes through the wound.”
Greer, the protagonist in Goddess Rising, is the prophesied savior of the world, yet she is fraught with flaws. She is by turns giving and selfish, thoughtful and thoughtless, charitable and merciless. She is touched by and guided by the Great Goddess, but never wanted this “gift,” and struggles almost constantly with doubt. You might think a savior, chosen by the Goddess, would be divinely immune to the shortcomings of the human race, but Greer is definitely human and definitely has her failings.
In the ghost story I’m currently writing, my protagonist is a very successful, very accomplished businessman who has the world by the tale. He’s handsome, intelligent, affluent, has a thriving business and a gorgeous girlfriend. But in listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s unorthodox version of the Christmas song What Child is This, I realized they had him pegged. A section of the song describes a man this way:
Holding on, holding off
Holding out, holding in
That’s my guy.
How do you choose the names for your characters?
Some of my favorite books are Baby Name books. I can sit and go through one of those for hours, highlighting possible names, jotting notes in the margins about potential characters. Same thing with the phone book. I know; most people would find the phone book to be stultifyingly boring, but I can get lost in it. Those are both great resources for names.
As to choosing names, it’s an intangible combination of the commonplace, the unusual, the sound and the number of syllables. I was going to say it is probably similar to the process any prospective parents go through, yet I am not restricted by family names or names of relatives as parents might be. For me, the possibilities are endless. I have, at times, chosen a name for a character and then later changed it or amended it, but that’s rare. Usually if I’m happy enough with a name to attach it to a character, it stays.
Who is your favorite character?
My two most favorite characters are Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving) and Celeste Chalfonte (Six of One by Rita Mae Brown). Of my own books, my favorite characters are (in no particular order):
Walking Bear (Superstition Gold)
Graydon Cole (Remember Me)
Balat (Goddess Rising)
Lucas Shay (Lightning Strikes)
Igli (The Blue Crystal)
Jory Donnelly (The Rare Breed)
Hannah (Goddess Rising)
Franklin (The Pits of Passion)
Hmm; funny how they’re mostly male. And none of them are the main female protagonist. Some are wise (Walking Bear, Balat, Hannah), some are intense (Graydon, Lucas), some are funny (Igli, Jory, Franklin). The connecting factor is that they are all agents of change and play the foil to the main protagonist and challenge him/her to grow, whether directly and deliberately, subtly (with humor) or even accidentally. More to hmmm about.
No doubt I could write another column all about psychotherapy and what my characters say about me. But we’ll let that one slide.