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Friday, 29 June 2012

Basing characters on real people - Part One


One of the comments I get from readers is that my characters feel real, even if there are a lot of them (it is a ‘multi-protagonist’ book). This was not always the case. In early drafts of the first book, The Eden Paradox, the characters were a little stiff, two-dimensional: ‘ciphers’ in writing jargon.

This is neither what the author nor the reader wants. As readers we want to know some of the characters better than real people in our lives, characters who stand out, lift off the page, or as Hemingway put it, leave footprints in the snow. Characters we will remember, for good or bad.

So, I decided to ‘borrow’ from some people I knew. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. In this blog I cover the following steps, which for me were a progression, and led to having some (apparently) memorable characters:

  1. Basing characters on yourself
  2. Using physical traits (looks) of other people
  3. Using speech patterns (dialogue)
  4. Using mannerisms (‘handles’)
  5. Borrowing personality traits from friends and enemies
  6. Mixing personality traits of different people you know
  7. Extending personality traits
  8. Upsetting real people with their characterisation
  9. Creating characters from scratch
  10. Letting characters write themselves

1. Basing characters on yourself
It is a truism that an author’s first novel in particular will in some ways be about the author, that his or her traits and mannerisms will creep into at least one of the characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing. My first reader said I was in two of the characters: she told me I wanted to be Blake, the archetypal hero, but in fact I was in reality more like Micah, the main protagonist, who is actually an anti-hero. I laughed, because that’s what you do when you hear something about you that has both the ring and sting of truth. ‘Write what you know’ is the best way to successful writing, and certainly some (though not all) of Micah’s interior monologues were exactly how I would think and react, if in such situations.

But not all. In fact one of my first professional reviewers of an early draft said of Micah that he could be a bit of a jerk. I laughed again, a bit more forced this time. That was when I learned the most important lesson, the main one you should take away from this blog: don’t base any character completely on someone you know (unless you’re writing a biography, of course). I’ll return to this point in part two of this blog. The clear advantage, though, is that your novel will have a definite ‘centre of gravity’, and, after all, most readers will never meet or get to know the author personally, so what they actually think of your character is less important than the fact that they will remember that character.

The risk, however, is that the character based on yourself will skew the book in your favour, and can be an ego-centric exercise in getting the things you always wanted but never had, saying things you wished you’d said but never did, in other words, living out your life in fiction to make up for some unsatisfactory real-life experiences. The reader will notice this, maybe not consciously, but will probably put the book down. That was why I made Micah an anti-hero, and gave him such a hard time.

2. Using physical traits of people you know
When a reader ‘meets’ a character, they need something to latch onto, what is called a ‘handle’. The easiest one by far is physical looks. But saying ‘she had long dark hair and penetrating emerald eyes’ won’t stay in the reader’s head for very long. Here’s how I describe Blake, the first time you meet him, through the eyes of Zack:

The harsh red flicker from the Ulysses holo reflected off Blake’s rusty hair and chiselled features, lighting up the bow-shaped scar above his right eye from hand-to-hand combat in Thailand, and the pockmarks on his left cheek from the gassing at Geronimo Station. Blake had lost a lot of men in the War, but always got the job done.

What is interesting is that this face is based on someone I once met, then never saw again, but I can still remember and picture his face. Think about it – it’s not a bad approach, right? But don’t picture someone famous, the readers will recognise you as a thief…

And here’s Zack, whose personality is based on a friend, and whose physical characteristics are completely made up:

Kat nudged her forearm upwards just enough to reveal Zachariah Katain, his large, oval black face grinning downwards, framed by wire-mesh eyebrows and a gleaming bald pate. His jaw stuck out, as if permanently mocking life. His eye-lids were a different story – they always seemed to be a fraction closed – alert, as if targeting something. She’d met other vet attack-pilots who’d had that same perpetual hunter look, like they couldn’t switch it off any more. It reminded her that although Zack appeared to be a regular, jovial wife-and-two-kids guy – because he was – he also had that killer instinct just underneath the surface.

What’s interesting about Zack is that a lot of readers like him, but forget he is black. I have no idea why, or what that means. Maybe I need to mention it a few more times, but to me colour isn’t much of an issue (in the future, at least).

Here’s Micah, described by his work buddy Rudi:

Rudi stretched his hands forward, framing Micah between thumbs and indexes as if taking a holopic. ‘I mean, look at you. The basics are okay – no hunchback, all your own teeth, body parts in the usual places. But the wiry fuzz on your head, the bulging eyes – is that a thyroid thing, by the way? And as for dress sense...’ Rudi’s hands returned to their habitual position, clasped behind his head. ‘Does your Mom still buy your clothes, or what? No style. That’s the problem, Micah. The girl you want is pure class, you’re not.’

Micah’s looks are based on someone I know well, who hasn’t read the book, and I’ve not asked him to either…

I don’t describe him much, actually, because the reader gets to be in his head a lot, and knows him that way. This is an important point. If you want the reader to identify with a character, but you over-describe him/her, nailing them down completely, then most readers will find it less easy to slip inside that character’s skin. Some of my favourite Scifi books have very little (or even no) description of the protagonist, you just get a feel, an image in your head of what they must look like. This is one reason why sometimes we go see films of our favourite books and are disappointed, because the characters on the silver screen look wrong. A good caster can overcome this, though, as in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, for example, whereas in every version of Dune I’ve seen, the character Paul Atreides on the screen is somehow dead wrong.
     
Try and avoid clichés and tropes (tall dark stranger… yawn), and ideally mix in a bit of personality with the physical attributes: e.g. as in my character Jen, who was almost pretty, a little on the plump side with short blonde hair, showed a bit too much cleavage, and had bottle green eyes that spent most of their time looking sideways at people when they weren’t looking back. Do you see her? Will you recognise her later on in the book? Do you want to know what makes her show cleavage and look at people sideways? Do you know someone like this? Do you already have a gut feel what she is like as a person? If you’ve read any of the Millennium books by Steig Larsson, I only have to mention a certain female character’s crooked smile, and you know who it is. In ten years’ time, you’ll still know.

3. Using speech patterns (dialogue)
Finding a character’s voice is really important, especially if you have a lot of characters, as otherwise they will sound the same, and your writing will appear flat, it won’t engage. The character Sandy in my book is based on a real person, in particular what she says. I can never get the last word with this person, in real life or on the page. Here’s an example, from a scene where Sandy is being interrogated by Vince, a Chorazin Interpol agent, who himself is a no-BS hardball. They are in a small room, on two chairs, facing each other, no table in between:

Sandy leant back in her chair. “Are you going to ask me all the shit again about Keiji’s murder? About what I saw, which was pretty much nothing. Why I hid?” She inhaled deeply, blowing out a long plume of smoke sideways, not at him. “That’s the way it always goes in the vids, isn’t it? Ask everything four times, story cohesion, all that bullshit?”
            She watched him as he uncrossed one leg and crossed the other. Muscular thighs. Shit, she thought, as she flushed, I don’t believe this. What’s this crap I suddenly have for bald-headed, athletic, blue-eyed men? She wondered if he’d noticed; of course he had.
“No,” Vince said. He spoke with an unexpected nonchalance. “As you say, that’s what they do in vids. In any case the Sensex cleared you three hours ago of being Mr. Kane’s murderer or an accomplice. According to your deposition you saw little, given your relative position to the killer.”
Yeah, right, she thought, I was giving Keiji a blowjob under the desk when the killer walked right in.
“…and you yourself were potentially a target, depending on what the killer thought you knew. But staying there all that time was a little extreme, don’t you think? The killer had made his getaway. You could have left.” 
Sandy crossed her legs, then changed the cross. His gaze didn’t falter. She looked around for an ashtray. She flicked a small head of ash onto the floor, and took another long drag.
“You know that blondie Chorazin is screwing Micah? I had a ringside seat. She’s kinky, you know. A bit out of his league.” She watched for a reaction, a movement, a flicker of the eyes. Something; anything. Nothing. She pressed harder. “They must train you people pretty good not to react to shit like that. Must take stuff out of you, huh? You must lose something, you know, a piece of yourself.”
Vince’s eyes intensified then broke her gaze. He stood up and walked around to the back of his chair. “Actually, it’s more like they put ‘stuff’ in.” 
 She gave a short, hollow laugh. “Good grief, a piece of Chorazin philosophy! I’m honoured.” She took a last drag and dropped the cigarette on the floor, stubbing it out with her shoe. She ground it longer than necessary with her heel, not looking at the messy stain.

Zack is also based on a real person, especially what he says. He’s a more rounded character, a counterpoint in amongst a stiff military group. Here he is with Pierre, who is Zack’s polar opposite, a scientist, (also based on somebody who hasn’t read the book, though in this case I do ask him to):

‘About time,’ Zack said.
Pierre primed a contact syringe, and in one smooth movement flicked it switchblade-style towards the side of Kat’s neck. There was a hiss, like a sharp intake of breath. A wash of deep red crawled across her face then vanished.
            ‘Will it calm her down?’ Zack frowned at her normally smooth, fine-featured face, now crumpled like a piece of paper, slick with sweat.
            ‘No, but she’ll realise she’s in a dream. If she remembers, she can control it.’
            Zack looked down at their youngest crew member. Yeah, if she ain’t too shit-scared. Her chest rose and fell with increasing speed. ‘Her vitals okay?’
            Pierre tapped the holopad next to the cot – several red spikes radiated outward, but none pierced the edge of the surrounding green hexagon. ‘Tolerable. In the dream she’s running, so her lungs work faster.’
            Zack chewed his lower lip. The nightmare was coming more regularly the closer they got to Eden, and Kat reckoned it wasn’t a normal dream, always exactly the same. So they’d decided to try a lucid dreaming technique, injecting a stim during the nightmare, so she could maybe control it, and recall what was chasing her.
            Pierre gazed into the mid-distance as he discarded the syringe. ‘Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?’ He said it as if reciting, a hint of his Parisian accent lingering.
Zack sighed, wondering for the hundredth time why Pierre wasn’t back in MIT, surrounded by his best friends – equations and a muon-scope. ‘Spare me the psy-crap, Pierre.’ He glared at him. They both knew why she was running.
‘I have to go. I’m finishing some tests. There’s a strange variance –’
‘Whatever.’ Zack gave him a sideways look. ‘I thought you liked Kat?’ 
Pierre hung there for a moment, fish-mouthed, then spun on his heel, and retreated to the cockpit.
            Zack re-focused his attention on Kat, planted himself on a mag-stool, and leant back against the graphite-grey inner hull. ‘Take it from me, kid, sometimes it’s okay to run. You run as fast as you damned well can.’

Kat is not based on a real person, but I like her dialogue, she parries all the time, because of her past, and supreme lack of trust in men, but is very incisive, both cutting and cut-up at the same time. She’s been around in my head so long she’s become real to me. Here’s an extract from the upcoming third book, Eden’s Revenge:

“Hello, Pierre,” Kat’s avatar said. “Platinum suits you. It’s your colour.”
            Pierre felt pleased at first, then caught himself – was he pleased with the simulation, or to see her again? Just an avatar, he reminded himself – let’s keep it professional. He addressed the slim, short-haired brunette with the crooked smile. “You have access to all my premises. We go to meet the female Kalarash known as Hellera. What do you advise?”
            She cocked her head. “I missed you. I thought it would go away, you know, fade. It didn’t. Not much, anyway. Not nearly enough.”
            He had an urge to clear his throat. This wasn’t working to plan. He thought about removing some of the emotional algorithms his brain had reverse-engineered into her avatar, but of course that would affect her intuition. He had to play along…
            “I … missed you too, in a way.”
            She glanced away. “Whatever. Your daughter – Petra – of course you remember her name, it’s the last thing you said to me.” Her eyes flashed dark. Anger, he realised. But she continued, waving a hand dismissively. “You’re seeing something that the Tla Beth are missing, but you’re also avoiding an obvious solution.” She folded her arms, stared at him.

4. Using mannerisms, ‘handles’
I’ve already mentioned the famous ‘crooked smile’ or Larsson’s famous character. Zack is bald, but has a habit of running his hand over his head, as if smoothing non-existent hair down. Micah clears his throat a lot (ahem, I do too, actually). It’s a nervous thing, so I only use it in such situations. Louise flirts a lot with her hair and eyes. Jen skulks around whenever she is amongst strangers. Blake steeples his fingers when making decisions. If you’ve read my books, and I mention the word ‘cigarette’, you’ll know who it is, because he is never ‘seen’ not smoking. But it is memorable because of the way he smokes. You’ll maybe remember that when he stubs out a cigarette, it’s with tangible regret, as if he was shooting a beloved horse. His only notable possession beside his sharp suits, is his gold cigarette case.

Characters can have nervous ticks, scratch themselves, purse their lips, sigh a lot, have hollow or excessive laughs, etc. Watch people, we all have them. They’re useful handles, because we can’t keep saying to the reader, ‘and here’s Jen again, remember, the one with the bottle green eyes?’

5. Borrowing personality traits from friends and enemies
A friend of mine writes vampire stories. When people piss her off in normal life, she casts them in her stories, and they come to a rather nasty demise. Love it. You think you know friends better than enemies. I hope so. But sometimes your vision of an enemy is more crystallised than that of a friend. I used one person I don’t like to represent a bad character in my books. It’s well-hidden, including the fact that I changed the sex for the characterisation. But it works. It also stops ‘baddies’ from becoming cartoon-like rather than real people. You have to let the baddies have a rationality behind their machinations, no matter how twisted. Remember that everyone is a hero in their own version of events, and this goes for any bad character, even evil ones. Here’s an example, without naming the character in case you’ve not read book one:

She leaned back in her chair, clasping her hands behind her skull. Galileo, my dear man, you should have listened to me. If you had, then you could have seen with your own eyes what your brilliance had only just managed to grasp – not just the non-Euclidean solar system, but the rest of the galaxy. And Amadeus – at least we will take your music with us, though you chose to remain so finitely mortal. She thought of the people she had known over the past six hundred years. Most she despised – her perspective was so different that she no longer thought of herself as human, and found humans – earthlings as she had started to call them, hopelessly bound to this doomed planet – their pitiful, short lives and limited vision, their petty selfishness. Humanity left alone would never rise above itself. There had even been a time when she had questioned the Q’Roth-Alician pact, but the longer she trod the Earth the more she knew the inevitable choice was between cull most and upgrade a few, or cull all.  
There had of course been some exceptional men and women – a few. She and others had tried to turn them, most without success. Still – there were five hundred like her, a few even older, roaming the world. They controlled humanity, misguided it, kept it off-balance, bringing it to ripeness for the return of the Q’Roth. Soon – very soon – almost no time at all, this self-obsessed civilisation would be eradicated, and they, the five hundred who knew what was coming, plus another five thousand promising Alicians, would have their own ships and a passport to the Grid. A new existence and legitimacy as a sponsored Level Five species. The hierarchy they had heard about would know this new humanity for the first time and would respect it: our next stage of evolution.

Notice this is all done via ‘internal monologue’. I’ve known a few people with twisted minds (I’m a psychologist). They are very careful about what they vocalise, most of it stays inside, and you watch their eyes, wondering what horrors lie behind… Besides, if this was done as dialogue or narrative, it wouldn’t sound right. Evil stays quiet, a neat trick a lot of SciFi films miss when they get their arch ‘baddie’ to wax lyrical about world domination or whatever. One advantage books have over film.

Using friends is actually trickier, because we are often too close to them to see them objectively enough to get it down on paper coherently. Also, we won’t want to kill them off, for example, when perhaps the plot demands it. So, I borrow traits from friends but change things, so at most half of the resultant character is based on a real person. One of my characters, Pierre, is loosely based on a colleague and friend at work. He refuses to believe it, though his wife can see it, and he doesn’t read science fiction. I joke back that the character Pierre would be far too serious in real life to read science fiction anyway.

But the main advantages of basing characters on friends is that you know how they would react, what they would say, and so it has more credibility and depth. One of my favourite school-day books was Wind in the Willows, and apparently all the characters were based on friends, obviously some eccentric ones, including Toad of Toad Hall.

Of course your friends might not like the way you portray them. I’ll come back to this in part two.

One psychologically interesting point is that if you base characters on friends, it can be a nicer experience writing the novel, because, let’s face it, writing is a lonely endeavour. I really like Naipaul’s writing, for example, but most of his characters are people I would not like as friends… Same for Coatzee. Maybe that’s what it takes to win Nobel prizes for literature…

More to come very soon...

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