OUR CHARACTERS - WHERE DO THEY COME FROM AND WHERE ARE THEY GOING?
One of the joys of writing is that it gives us a chance to play God. It allows us to shut ourselves up in our cosy little room with a cup of coffee and create a world which we (almost) entirely control while the ‘real’ world spins alarmingly out of control all around us. I say ‘almost’ because even our imaginary worlds sometimes run amok.
One of our most vital functions as God is to give birth to our characters. Fortunately we are spared the mess and pain of actual childbirth, for our characters just pop up fully formed and fully clothed (unless you’re E. L. James) and going about the business of enacting our story. But where do they come from?
Most writers will answer that they somehow emerge from the very fabric of the conception, like living organisms miraculously forming out of the primordial soup. Speaking as one who prefers writing realist fiction set in the contemporary world, the seeds of most of my novels and stories have come from events in my own life or the lives of people I know. It is generally true to say, therefore, that the characters have been loosely based on the protagonists in those dramas, but only very loosely. For once he or she has been born, a character tends to take on a life of their own and often ends up unrecognizable as the real-life person who inspired them, their characteristics often redirecting the plot.
Authors of science fiction, historical or fantasy novels may find their characters emerge in a different way. Historical novels often contain real historical figures who have been fictionalised – something which is possible since, however great the body of learning surrounding them, it is usually contradictory and they can thus be safely remodelled by the novelist. But whatever genre the author works in, I’m sure they would find (if they’re honest with themselves) a person, or people, they know - or a combination of people - at the root of their character. Scratch beneath the surface of your witch or vampire and you’ll probably find your parents in law.
Then comes the task of naming our babies. My wife’s cousin has two teenage boys called James and Sam, whose names I always confuse (to everyone’s acute annoyance) since, to me, Sam looks exactly like a James and James like a Sam. It is bizarre how certain names seem to suit certain people, and I am not sure how far this is subjective or objective. In our novels, of course, we are free to call our characters what we like and if they look like a Sam we can call them Sam or we might call them something entirely different to make them less predictable and more memorable. Sometimes the character seems to be born with a name attached and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it isn’t. I certainly find that my characters acquire their names very early on in the process – seemingly out of nowhere – and then I’m stuck with them. To change a character’s name two months into writing a first draft seems almost impossible. You’ve got to know them intimately by then and to change their name would be like changing your child’s name when it’s five years old just because you’ve got bored with it.
This is also true of the character’s physical appearance, although I usually find that the images I have in my head are rather vague and I like to keep my descriptions equally vague – apart from some precise but sparing pointers. To state that a male character has, for instance, ‘wide, hazel eyes with bushy eyebrows, a long straight nose and full sensuous lips’ is, I think, a mistake, partly because it’s hard for readers to retain all those details in their mind’s eye and partly because those features may remind them of someone they dislike.
Which brings us to another vital aspect of character-creation – the role of the reader. For a character is not wholly a creation of the writer, after all, but a collaboration between the writer’s and the reader’s imaginations. If the writer says nothing about a male character’s height, for example, the reader will tend to supply a man of average height – or a bit taller if they happen to like tall men. If the writer only mentions a character’s eye or hair colour, the reader will tend to extrapolate physical attractiveness since – let’s face it – most of us like our characters to be easy on the mind’s eye. And it is the reader’s experience, after all, which ultimately matters.
I think this is why problems arise when books are made into films. It’s not simply that the character the reader has formed and grown to love in their imagination may not look anything like Angelina Jolie or Johnny Depp or Sir Ian McKellan but that these celluloid creations have a different essence, a different constituency to literary characters. This is also true when a writer introduces a ‘real’ person into the narrative as a cameo (Tony Blair, the Queen for example) because the glaring reality of these people in our minds eye throws the literary creation out of focus.
Any writers who are kind enough to read this post will probably say I’m just stating the obvious, but I thought I would state it anyway. The great characters of literature – Jane Eyre, Mr Darcy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, James Bond to name just a few among thousands – have become so much part of our cultural consciousness that we sometimes forget that they don’t exist, that they’re just figments of someone’s imagination. Yet the workings of those imaginations – and those of all writers – remains endlessly fascinating and one of the great mysteries and miracles of human creativity.