Creating Fictional Characters


Last semester, a student asked a terrific question as she was in the early stages of drafting her short story:

I have been working on the character development [exercise] and all I think of are people I know. Only the name is make believe. My question is, How do I create a character who isn't someone I know or a combination of people I know?

If you ask writers of fiction if their characters are based on people they knew, the answers will range from "yes" to "sometimes" to "never."

Most writers agree, and I'm one of them, that every character created is probably based on a real person, whether the writer realizes it or not. However, the "real" person eventually becomes "real" in a "story" sense rather than a "real life" sense because the job of the fiction writer is to tell a good story, which SEEMS true, but is not factually true to real-life, which is what a memoir does.

So, when I talk in the lecture of "Verisimilitude"" it's the job of the writer to create "believable" characters, and this is often done by paying attention to real-life. The character we create, in some form or another, are usually based on people we have personally experienced, and that's a big part of what makes the characters seem real.

However, instead of presenting those characters as they are in real-life, as real people we know, our job as fiction writers is to manipulate those characters into the service of the story.

So, to avoid more theoretical stuff, I'll offer some concrete solutions for avoiding bringing (too much of) real-life people into your fiction, but instead some ways to allow real-life people to inform your stories, but then ways in which to spur your imagination to shape the "real-people" into real fictional characters:

Take a rough character that you are inventing in the Character Development Exercise and RANDOMLY assign that character an obsession or a passion or a career, and then write in that character's voice about the obsession or passion or career. In your First Person POV exercise, which is due April 23 (see course calendar), you'll be performing a similar operation: taking a rough charachter and assigning it a random thing/passion/interest (from your List 50 Concrete nouns exercise) and writing about that trait from the character's POV, in that character's voice.

The goal of point of view exercises like this is to attempt to speak in another character's voice, to put on a mask, and in some cases, to actually "imitate" others (like a comic impersonator, in a way, a Jonathan Winters or Rich Little). Another exercise you will be doing (see upcoming course calendar) is one where you're expected to eavesdrop on a real-life conversation and simply record the dialogue. The purpose of this is to develop your "ear" for the way different people speak differently, and this is another way of becoming a "mimic" of the way other people speak.

But then, how do you find a particular character's voice if it's not a real-life character? By exercise. That's my answer for everything. You find the character by writing exercises.

So, in a nutshell, my recommendation is that you take whatever characters you're considering developing, even if just by name only, and write POINT OF VIEW exercises (See Trigger Exercises, Character Development and Dialogue Section) with those characters in order to find their voice. You'll find that the more you do that, the more you write to the prompts and the less you "think" about the real people, the voice of the imagined character starts to take over and just by the process of "putting on a mask," new characters are invented.

It's an almost identical method to the ones comics use when they do improv: they're given a prompt, usually with a situation and character "type," and then they move forward in a stream-of-consciousness, non-thinking but actually more "reactive" way, and suddenly new characters and voices and dialogue appears. A good example would be Robin Williams, who can move in and out of different character's voices at the mere hint of a suggestion. Someone could say, "Paper" and he'd fearlessly move into the voice of a character who has a love for paper products, or something, whatever his free-associating mind invented; the real key is to "let go" and let the brain move forward without thinking too much. Take the exercise prompt and move forward WITHOUT editing-as-you-go. 

Okay, so here's the way you should ALL conduct yourself during writing exercises: take the prompt, just like an improv' comic, and move forward with it without being self-critical or self-conscious. Instead, let the prompt move you forward. Here's an example from Monty Python: Eric Idle, one of the five performers, used to write comedy sketches in a very free way: he'd find a prompt and just plain go nuts with it, messily writing down ideas and images and dialogue without thinking about structure or organization or logic, and then when he was out of gas, he put aside the jumble of words, then later went back through the mess and "shaped" it.

John Cleese of Monty Python worked differently: as he'd move forward creating material, he'd stop and analyze each sentence or idea for it's logic before moving onto the next image. One time, Eric Idle wrote WITH John Cleese, and Idle couldn't stand working that way. He wanted to let the creativity move forward in a wild, messy way, as it should, and then go back and shape it into something logical. Cleese, however, wanted the logic and order worked out as he created.

John Cleese, a brilliant comic, has a creative writing process that it's pretty exceptional, and by exceptional I mean "rare." Most writers write like Eric Idle.

And I recommend and set up the course to write more in the Eric Idle mode than the John Cleese mode: to rely on exercises to fuel creativity and wildness, to generate rough material that you can then go back to and shape and polish and organize into publishable poems and stories.

Thus, overall, most of the exercises in the course give a small sort of prompt to launch you forward freely, whereas the most "John Cleese" style exercise is the "Character Development Exercises." It's probably the most linear, structured exercise in the course. It works for some (the John Cleese-types), as I mention in the instructions, but it doesn't work for others (the Eric Idle types). Ultimately, you need to decide what works best for your creative process, by trying both sorts of exercises.

In my own case, I'm more of an Eric Idle than a John Cleese; even when I've worked the Character Development exercise, and others like it, I skip around and go on tangents and get off track and out of control and start writing in odd, unusual voices; a John Cleese-type, however, will painstakingly start at the beginning and would never move onto prompt #3 before completing prompt #2. That sort of process works for some, but like I said earlier, most writers I know, and have read and researched their writing process, are more of the Eric Idle free-associating types, who are willing to get messy and speak in other people's voices.

So, basically, trust the writing exercises; try them all and find the ones that work for you to develop characters. The best way to develop characters is to write in their voice, and the best way to "find" their voice is to force formal writing exercises upon them in order to "get away" from real-life and let the imagined voices do their work. These exercises are tested and proven to do the work; they really work. Not all of them work all the time, but the more you practice writing in imagined voices, the better chance you have of creating characters who are outside of the experience of your immediate personal life.

Using the writing exercises that force you to write from points of view other than your own are especially helpful to break the curse of writing like a journalist. My writing teacher Phil Dacey called this action "putting on the mask."

I like that metaphor.

So, to conclude again: work those POV exercises in the Trigger Exercises section (Character Development and Dialogue Section; the second part of that section contains various POV exercises). Write in the voice of characters outside your own experience and see what happens.