Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Where Do Characters Come From?

A few years ago, I was doing a live radio call-in show when a listener phoned in and insisted I’d used him as a character in my book. I told him I was flattered that he saw himself in one of my characters, but all my characters are fictitious. I dare say that’s true for most novelists and short story writers.
Of course, characters can be inspired by flesh-and-blood people. But they’re rarely carbon copies. Often they’re amalgams. A character might combine the traits of several people––your sister’s hair, your boss’s feisty temper, your best friend’s interest in archery. It’s not uncommon to give a character a few of your own attributes as well––or to endow him/her with qualities you wish you had. You can make your character taller, prettier, smarter, braver, richer––whatever you please––then send him/her out into the world to do all the things you’d like to do. How cool is that? We writers get to play God/dess.
Some characters seem to emerge “out of the blue.” Even the writer doesn’t know where they came from. They may turn up at your desk fully formed and demand a role in your story, or slip in the door quietly and begin sharing bits and pieces of themselves until you’re hooked. Characters have minds of their own and they can be quite insistent. They keep you awake nights talking. They distract you when you’re supposed to be busy doing your day job. If you let them, they’ll take over your book and try to run the show.
Writers have lots of imaginary friends. We never go anywhere without a few of them tagging along. Being a writer gives you license not only to talk to yourself, but to your characters as well. My characters like to ride in the car with me. When I started writing my first mystery novel Hidden Agenda, I didn’t know whodunit until I was halfway through the book. One day I was driving down the highway when the villain slid into the seat beside me and said, “We’ve all gotten together (meaning the characters in my book) and decided it’s time you knew. I’m here to tell you I did it.” Well, then I had to go back and rewrite the first half of the book.
Most readers I know say they must care about the characters in order to enjoy the book. Most writers I know believe that characters drive a book––if you really know and trust them, they’ll guide your story and when you get stuck they’ll bail you out. The problem for writers is, once you’ve finished the book, what do you do with the characters who’ve been an integral part of your daily life for months or maybe years? After all you’ve been through together, how can you just say “nice knowing you” and send them packing? For many of us, letting go is hard, maybe impossible. We don’t want to sever our ties, say goodbye to dear friends when the curtain falls. The answer? Write a sequel!

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