Thursday, April 3, 2014

Draw Characters From Around You by Rita Karnopp

I’ve been asked, “Where do your characters come from?”  Easy, I draw from three sources; people I know, people I’ve read or heard about, and people I imagine or create.

Whether we admit it or not, our character’s emotions come from within us.  I’ve never been attacked and almost killed, but when my heroine is in this position – I draw from memories of my most extreme fear.  Like when I was ten and a man of around twenty-eight asked me to play mommy and daddy with him.  I remember my skin turned clammy, my heart pounded because it felt ‘wrong,’ and my throat became dry. I wanted to run but my feet refused to move.  We were in the back of an old, smelly, iced delivery truck – and I couldn’t remember how we got there.  Fear gripped me. (Yes – that truly happened.  I remember saying, “Let me come inside and be happy to find you here.”  He agreed, so once I stepped outside, I ran like hell!  I told on him, and never saw him again.  Thank God!  Okay – there was more to it than that, but I escaped – unhurt - that’s all that matters.  But, you see my point.  We pull on our experiences to create the scene.

If my heroine is in an extremely embarrassing position – I draw on the time I was crossing the street in a wind storm and my dress was lifted up over my head like a closing tulip.  Even though the scenes are different, the instinct, the feeling, the ‘emotions’ can be drawn from your own inner experiences, and from those we are close to.

It would be difficult to create a protagonist based on yourself, because it would be so hard to be objective.  Don’t get too close to the characters you create.  Create your villains from people you dislike and wish you could change, but you know you can’t.  Your objectivity will be honest if you pull from your life situations or altercations, but make it happen to someone other than yourself.

Also remember it’s those around us… their personalities - good and bad traits - that we draw on to create characters, but mix them up.  If your character is grumpy, self-centered, and antisocial like Aunt Lottie, you don’t want to hurt her feelings by making her recognizable – do you?  Take Aunt Lottie’s self-centered persona and mix her with Grandma Anna’s unforgiving, grudge-holding attitude, and cousin Camille’s sense of humor.  Blending family traits guarantees your family and friends are less likely to recognize themselves and become upset.

In addition to composites of people you know, you can also base characters on people you have only heard or read about. This can work well because you’re not bound by many facts. You’re making up the character, with the real person providing no more than a stimulus for inspiration.
Say you read about a woman whose will leaves $6 million to a veterinary hospital she visited only once, 40 years earlier, with her dying cat. You never met this woman. All you have is the newspaper story. But something about the situation has caught your attention. What kind of person would do that? You begin to imagine this woman: her personality and history, what that cat must have meant to her, why there were no other people important enough to her to leave them any inheritance.
Before long, you’ve created a full, interesting and poignant character, someone you might want to write about. Yes, you started with secondhand information—but now the character is fully yours.
As Charlotte Brontë famously remarked, reality should ‘‘suggest’’ rather than ‘‘dictate’’ characters.
Creating purely invented characters is similar to basing characters on strangers. With strangers, a small glimpse into another life sparks the imagination. Made-up characters, too, usually begin with the spark of an idea. The writer then fans the spark into a full-blown person.
William Faulkner, for example, had a sudden mental image of a little girl with muddy drawers up in a tree. That image became Caddy in The Sound and the Fury.
Characters usually present themselves encased in at least the rudiments of a fictional situation. Caddy is up in a tree (why?). The deceased lady has left $6 million to an animal hospital. You have something here to work with. Your next task is to look hard at this character/situation in order to decide if the character is strong enough to sustain a story.
Excerpted from Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint © 2005 by NANCY KRESS, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.

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