November 12, 2007

My Characters And Me

It's that instant when you get a great idea for a story; you're in the shower, in a meeting at work, or waiting for someone to quit talking to you so you can nod and walk away. Yes, we writers are always writing, even when we're not in front of our computers. For me, when that moment of inspiration hits, and I'm able to ditch my responsibilities and scurry off to find a pen and a scrap of paper to jot my ideas on, my characters begin to come to life.

In my head, their personalities are formed first. I'll imagine someone with the fortitude to rescue an entire nation, or merely reach for a ball in a sewer, or whatever the plot calls for. I’ll then see that person's human shape assemble itself in that section of the brain reserved for a writer's special talents. For me, it's the character’s behavior and traits which dictate their physical characteristics.

In my latest story, my protagonist, Roger, is a former police officer in the process of grieving. He's not very active because he finds it difficult to get out of bed everyday because he does not have a whole lot to live for. He does not work and lives off his police pension. He becomes overweight because of his sedentary lifestyle and the fact that he does not take care of himself. Later, he takes a job as his life and spirits improve. After a few months he begins to lose weight and gain some muscle tone. Roger's emotions dictate his physical appearance in this example. As the writer, I had to be true to Roger and describe him as was necessary based on his emotional state of being; heavy at first, but then slim and in shape, only because he changed as a person and became active again.

That is just one example of how my characters form. There are, however, shortcuts to my characterizations. In my first novel, Sergeant Fukes is based on a sergeant I had in the police department, physically, and psychologically only by half. His personality is an amalgam of both my squad sergeant’s and another sergeant I knew at one time in my career. The two were dissimilar in looks and persona, and I thought is would be ideal to combine their mannerisms into one person because they both would have handled certain situations in the story very differently. I thought their dissimilar habits would make for an interesting character. One sergeant was a brown nose who never would question a superior, and the other was a stickler for department regulations which very often were obscure and rarely used. The man I created was a rigid, rule worshipping nebbish who also could not say no to anyone who outranked him or was senior to him. This created friction as there were policies to be obeyed, but he did not have the fortitude to enforce them with anyone who wasn’t below him in rank. As a result, he was ineffective as a supervisor.

Finally, instead of shaping characters from my imagination, or basing them on other people, more than once I based a protagonist on myself. Writing is indeed therapy, and using the space of entire novel to reconcile my religious faith or my misspent youth does have a healing effect. Also, I hope it may be enticing material for someone to read. Another benefit of using me as inspiration for a character is that it is less likely that someone would think I wrote about them.

These are just a few examples of how I create characters. Once my central character is born, he needs family, friends, co-workers, etc, and they seem to spring up around him and fill in the spaces in the story neatly along the way through each chapter as I write them. Notice how I said “they spring up around him.” That’s because I have yet to write a story completely around a woman. Maybe it’s because I’m still writing about myself, or maybe it’s because the only story I want to tell about a woman will be based entirely on someone I’m very close to and I don’t think I want her to read it yet. It’ll be tough to keep that manuscript from her because my wife reads every one of my stories. Oh great, she’s going to read this post too.

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