Saturday, 30 June 2012

Basing characters on real people - Part Two

This blog is the second (and last from me) on what I've learned concerning whether and how to base characters on real people.

Yesterday's blog considered the first five approaches below, and today's deals with items 6-10:

  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 characterization
  9. Creating characters from scratch
  10. Letting characters write themselves

6. Mixing personality traits of different people you know
This one is real short. I tried it several times, including very recently, and it doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s like making good cocktails and can be done, but I have never managed it. I think it’s because I have clear visions of people I know, and can’t cut and paste them into each other. I’d rather create one from scratch (point 9) or extend personality traits (next).

7. Extending personality traits
This is something worth doing, particularly if you are writing any sort of thriller fiction. If you are writing more literary fiction, I’m less sure it’s a good idea.

Essentially, you take your basic character and imagine them going that bit further, that much wilder, saying what they really think rather than what we usually end up saying in reality (and wishing later we’d said so much more, or less). I usually do this in two stages, particularly with dialogue. First I get the basic dialogue down, then I’ll come back to it later and ‘up the ante’, raising conflict. You let the characters go further, and bring out certain traits (fear, love, anger, greed, hatred, whatever) to the fore. This doesn’t have to result in action – you can show what the character is thinking of saying or doing, but not have them do it; this can sometimes be more effective in making the character memorable in any case, because it is more like us.

Here’s Micah, at a pivotal moment in book 1, when he ‘loses it’. Notice I bring Vince in to restore a sense of reality afterwards.

Vince was half-way to the door. He sighed, turning around. ‘Look, I know you’re trying, and you mean well, so I’m going to give you some advice you’re probably not going to listen to. I ran the profile on you, so I’m going to tell you who you are, so that maybe, just maybe you can help yourself, though I doubt it.’
Micah leaned backwards against the desk.
‘You got fucked up by your father, Micah. You’re in his shadow. Daddy hero syndrome. We know all about him, what a prick he was to you and your family – heroes, always a black side, eh?’
Micah had thought it a million times, but never heard it from someone else.
‘So you want to be a hero, too, maybe a different kind. Am I right?’
Micah’s throat locked tight.
‘Well let me save you the bother. He’s dead. You need him to recognise you, accept you, whatever, and it won’t happen, Micah, because… the sonofabitch is dead. So, step out of the shadow. He screwed up your life while he was alive, now you’re doing it for him.’ Vince spun around and headed out. ‘Get a life, Micah, your own.’
Micah breathed hard. Dozens of buried memories resurrected themselves. All were between him and his father, all were unpleasant: the put-downs, the patronising lectures, and the ever-present disappointment in his father’s tone. Micah’s fists squeezed hard. Uncorked anger rose inside him like bile.
Nobody, in all these years, even his sister, had ever validated him – not once – about his father. All the press, the vids, had nothing else to say but that he was the Great War hero who sacrificed everything for God and country, Colonel Victor Sanderson, the Gray Colonel… Micah remembered the storm shelter, his father labelling him a coward after the nuclear attack. He realised he was still trapped in that one, terrified, fifteen year old boy’s humiliating moment.
Without thinking, he grabbed the arms of his chair, raised it above his head, and with an anguished cry brought it crashing down on his computer. He raised it again, slamming it down even harder, denting the metal. He swept everything off the desk, sending tortured fragments clattering across the floor. Two guards rushed in, then grounded to a halt.
‘Calm down, Son,’ one of them said.
Micah didn’t know what his face looked like, but they didn’t approach any closer.
He cast aside the twisted chair and glared at them. ‘I’m nobody’s fucking son.’
            Vince re-entered, glaring at the mess around Micah’s feet. ‘Christ, Micah, do I have to get you escorted off the premises, or call a shrink? Forget the privileges, I’m bringing the Mil in now.

I just watched the final episode of Stargate the other night (pretty good, actually), and in it Daniel has a complete rant against Vala, which goes a long way beyond his normal character 'envelope'. But because of the situation they are in, it is not only credible, but moving, and essential to the plot and rounding off of the entire series.

Incidentally, a good device in any writing is to have one or two characters discussing another one. That’s what we do in the real world, right? And word of mouth is often taken more seriously than the narrator’s ‘voiceover’. You can also build up a character this way by having several people at different times describe the character or make reference to his or her attributes, all from slightly different (or even completely opposite) standpoints or angles. This can be a good way to set up a character, or even to set up a false impression of a character. For example. a classic (as opposed to timeworn) approach is to hear that someone is really bad or good, and then find out they are not. This works better if other characters have ‘set you up’ than if the narrator has done it. It means you will feel like you know the character better than anyone else in the book. I do this with two particular characters in my book, Gabriel and Louise, neither of whom are based on any real people. I think this kind of authorial gymnastics gives the author a way to get to know the characters better, deepening them. People often tell me they remember these two characters above the others, actually, definitely wanting one of them to live, and the other to die, die, die!

8. Upsetting real people with their characterisation
As mentioned, this can happen. It is a good reason for never using a real person to make an identical character in a book. You could in theory be sued for libel, and most publishers (especially in the UK where libel protection is excessive) will not want to face down a libel case, though normally this only happens with memoires. In any case, my books are set fifty years in the future, which should give me a good defence case, LOL.

More to the point, most fiction is about entertaining the reader, and this shouldn’t be at the cost of personal relationships. Most people feel honoured if they see their names. A friend of mine has the same name as Josefsson, one of the not-very-nice characters in the book, but he knows it’s just the name and maybe some of the looks, the rest is completely different.

Don’t put friends in your books just to please them, because as said earlier, it can backfire, and it will detract from the story and its cohesiveness. At the end of the day it is a work of fiction, and should be about the story and the fictional characters that make it. It is a bit like ‘cameo’ appearances of famous people in a movie, where you see them for a second and then they are gone. It is a bit of fun, but when it happens, it takes you out of the film and reminds you that you are watching something rather than being entirely caught up in it. A reader will detect that there is something not quite right about the character in the story if they don’t really belong there.

I used to tell people if I was using them in some way in the story. I don’t anymore. It’s not about them, it’s about the story, and giving the reader a good reading experience.

9.  Creating characters from scratch
I do this more now, having come through the other steps. Some writing coaches tell you to do a questionnaire on each character, e.g. how many siblings, where they come from, how old, etc. etc. I tried it, but I found it too much like a shopping list approach, not leading to anything – or anyone – whole. Having said that, it is important to give readers the odd snippet that they have (or had) a life ‘off-page’. Kat is a good example. In all three books there are oblique references to her uncle and a former life of luxury which she gave up, though there are almost no details because for some reason she is ashamed about it. I’ll tell you this much: something bad happened, but you, the reader, will never know, because it is her secret, and it’s part of her character. That’s real, isn’t it?

There is something refreshing in creating a character from scratch, one that does lift off the page. Rashid is another completely made-up character, yet many readers remember him, even though he is not that central. Usually such characters have arisen as counter-points to other characters, and because the plot demands it. Rashid is Indian (yes, I know it’s not an Indian name, that’s explained in book 2…), and I wanted him there because the book was too ‘West-centric, and I needed a good counterpoint to Blake. Here’s when he and Blake (and Kat) first meet, seen through Kat’s point of view:

She’d heard no footsteps, and spun around awkwardly in the cramped cabin to see a silhouette: human at least, no space suit either. Blake’s pistol was already drawn, but she left hers where it was as the man pulled the door closed behind him and she got a good look at him: a tanned man in khaki shorts and threadbare tee shirt, unshaven for a few days. He was shorter than both of them and had open sandals on his feet. He put his palms together in front of his chest like he was praying, and gave a short bow.  
Before either of them could speak, the newcomer greeted them in a lilting, almost musical, voice. ‘Welcome to my home.’
Indistani! She’d had several good Indian friends at the academy, before the reunification with Pakistan and Bangladesh after the War, so she recognised the accent well enough. She smiled at the man, and without thinking, being closer to the door than Blake, held out her gloved hand. After a heartbeat’s hesitation, the man stepped forward and took it, at first gingerly, then he shook it firmly, with both hands. Kat saw the man up close now, probably early thirties, with deep brown eyes, seemingly back-lit whites surrounding the irises. Kat turned to introduce Blake.
‘My name is Katrina Beornwulf, and this is –’
Blake holstered his weapon, but left the securing clip undone – she didn’t doubt he could draw it fast if required.
‘Captain Blake Alexander, Eden Mission, New World Alliance, Sir. And you are?’
The man considered Blake, then turned to Kat.
‘Why are you wearing your helmet?’
Kat cast an ignored glance at Blake. The man continued in his Indistani-English accent. ‘The harm from this planet will not come from its atmosphere. Please, both of you sit down.’ He gestured to the makeshift bed. Kat again looked questioningly to Blake who, clearly having never encountered a protocol for this particular scenario, indicated to Kat to sit, but gave a firm shake of his head when Kat gestured with a finger to her helmet. Not surprised, she sat, as did Blake, though he remained at the edge of the cot, on his guard. The man opposite pulled up the cushion in front of the computer terminal.
‘You know, after a hundred years of computers, even us Indians have nearly forgotten how to sit cross-legged on the floor.’ He beamed at them.
Kat smiled back, hoping to compensate for Blake’s iron regard. She guessed what he was thinking. It looked as if there had been a struggle in the cockpit, and one crew member was alive, the other dead, possibly killed before the crash. But she couldn’t believe this man a murderer, or even capable of killing; his whole demeanour was so gentle. No, she thought – genteel, that archaic word almost lost by its near irrelevance to modern Earth’s post-War manners, though she’d grown up in such a household in Oxford. She hadn’t missed either that he referred to himself as Indian and not Indistani, but then he didn’t fit the bill of a separatist either.

I had several Indian friends at University, and have travelled there several times, and wanted to bring out that ‘genteel’ aspect of their character, though Rashid has another side, too. The funny thing is that I now have a friend who has read the book, loves the Rashid character, and is quite like him (he is a Sikh). It’s a funny old world…

10. Letting characters write themselves
In book two, Eden’s Trial, I had a character called Hannah, again, completely made up. I tried to kill her off early on, but she resisted, made her case, and so I held back. I swear that’s how it felt. Also, my writing group said she was an interesting character, even though they knew she was not central. Another character who wrote herself was Angel, who appears in two chapters in Eden’s Trial. I have no idea where she came from, she just took over my keyboard, and emerged, so to speak. Despite just appearing in two chapters, a number of readers have asked when she’s coming back…

There was a short hiss and a dull rumble, like a train carriage on tracks, as the door swung aside into a recess. A sheen of water vapour lingered in the air, then dissipated like wisps of dew in the morning sunlight. Micah’s eyes narrowed, then widened.
            A lean, muscled woman in her thirties, completely bald, with sharp jade-coloured eyes, stepped toward them, looked straight at Micah, ignored the rifles, and held out her hand. “Angelica Rushton. You can call me Angel. Nice to meet you.”
            Zack lowered his rifle. Ramires didn’t.
            Micah gingerly met her hand, and shook it. “Micah Sanderson. How –”
            “And this is Starkel.” She jerked a thumb behind her, as the second airlock occupant stepped out of its shadow. Zack’s rifle jerked back into readiness as the tall, black-clad figure glided into view, silent as a zero-G dancer, and muscled to boot. Micah’s instincts told him to be very careful, even before he noticed that the man’s eyes – irises included – were pure black.   
            “It’s okay everybody,” Angel said, “he’s eaten.” She turned to Zack. “Speaking of which, and I know this is going to sound weird, but do you have any meat onboard? You know, honest-to-God meat?”
            It went smoother from there.

In summary, here’s some things to strive for with characterization:

  • A reader should be able to pick out a character from a police line-up (looks)
  • A reader should be able to recognise a character by watching them at a party (looks plus mannerisms)
  • A reader should be able to recognise who is speaking without dialogue ‘tags’ (e.g. ‘said Jen’)
  • Readers should be able to gasp at what characters sometimes do, or punch the air thinking ‘Yes!’ when a character screams at her boss, or bite their lip when a character holds his tongue when she should scream out, all without losing a jot of credibility.
  • People in your writing group should be able to say to you, as I remember them saying to me in an earlier draft, “Look Barry, I’m sorry, but Blake simply wouldn’t say that!” That was the first time I realised I’d created a character, and for me, it marked the crossover point from writing as a hobby, to a passion.
Good luck. 

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