|[I]t’s not a good idea to try to put your wife into a novel. Not your latest wife, anyway.
~Norman Mailer, quoted in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, 1967
How are characters created? In non-fiction, characters are clearly real people as described by the writer. In fiction, however, characters are supposed to be completely fictitious, a.k.a., unreal, made-up, invented, created, imaginary. And yet, the best writers are the most notorious borrowers, copiers, and imitators, mainly of life. How else would they be able to create surrealistically real scenarios and characters if they did not borrow, copy, or imitate from real life? The best writers are excellent students of life in that they observe life keenly and everything they see becomes a potential source for something they write. They might describe a restaurant, but if they had never sat in a restaurant and observed every little detail about it, from the cutlery to the cuisine, from the service to the servers, from the entrance to the ambience, they would not be able to create a restaurant in words that places the reader exactly where the characters are. The same thing goes for characters. Writers need to observe people closely, watching every movement and pose, from the twitch of the fingers to the facial tics, from the strands of hair to the creases and folds of their clothes, from the twinkling in the eyes to the faintest blue or red capillaries weaving delicate networks on a papery-skinned cheek—such is what brings characters to life. As well, not a single little mannerism should escape them, from how a coffee mug is grasped to how hair is brushed from the face, or how fingers tap or twirl and feet jiggle to the slant of shoulders, the tilt of the head, the curvature of the spine, the way ankles or knees or arms cross—all these make characters more human. To complete that image, characters have voices, different tones, different expressions and ejaculations, different accents, different kinds of laughs. It’s not surprising, therefore, if a writer’s characters resemble the people around them, the people they live with, the people close to them, or even the people they detest and abhor the most. Of course, only those who know both the writer and the people in the writer’s life will know who a writer has modelled a character after. In fact, if you are a writer looking for a character, you need look no farther than your family, friends, and acquaintances. In most cases, writers will pick and blend characteristics so that their fictitious characters are a mish-mash of traits from several real people. Depending on how realistic the fiction is, writers can take all the good traits from several real people and put them in the protagonist, then take all the bad traits from those same people or others and put them in the antagonist. While that may not sound realistic, that would certainly make a great caricature for a cautionary tale, a humorous tale, or a fantasy. Certainly, the more unrealistic characters are, the more impossible it is that they are real people. Of course, that is not to say that there are real people out there who are real characters—which is where our expression comes from for calling people “characters”—the fact that they seem so unreal, it’s almost as if they’ve been made up.
When I give workshops that teach writers how to develop characters, I usually provide participants with a character sheet, not unlike character sheets you might find for role-playing games, because they are, essentially, character creation sheets. Writers can develop their own or look for them in a variety of online writing resources. Basically, a character sheet has three major aspects: (1) the physical features of the character; (2) the biographical-historical background, and (3) the emotional-psychological features of the character.
As the categories suggest, the physical features tell us how tall, heavy, the color and length of hair, the eye color and shape, the shape of the body, identifying marks, hand and foot size, what fingers and toes look like, clothing size, teeth condition, nose and nostril type, neck, etc. It helps to have a picture of someone real, or to create analogies: swan-like neck, flared nostrils, chunky fingers and toes, spade fingernails, etc.
When describing biographical-historical background, we decide how old the character is, birthdate, place of birth, race, nationality, residence, family, relatives, languages, education, skills, places lived, their work, religion, memberships, training, jobs held, and all other types of things you might find in the most comprehensive biodata and curriculum vitae ever.
Third, and probably the most difficult, is establishing the emotional-psychological profile of the character. This includes quirks, beliefs, superstitions, attitudes, intellect, viewpoint on various topics from politics to art and culture to family, personality type, phobias, preferences, desires, weaknesses, dreams, and anything else that reflects their psyches. Finally, every character must have that fatal or tragic flaw. That one thing that is the character’s Achilles heel, the one thing that will affect the character’s success. It can be one or more of the character’s phobias or weaknesses that prevent success, but definitely one thing that within the character that works against overcoming the problem they face in the story. This is the humanizing factor that makes readers more sympathetic towards fictional characters, because we all know that nobody is perfect.
While I have presented a great deal of details that can go into the creation of a character, that is not to say every single detail must be present. As an aid to determining how much detail to include when creating a character, let me just say that the detail should be commensurate to the length of the story. The shorter the story, the less detail; longer, epic stories will need greater detail, because then, characters are exposed to the reader’s scrutiny in a greater variety of situations. They meet more characters, do more things, have more to accomplish or overcome; hence, they need to be more well-thought out, more fleshed-out, more real to account for every possibility along the way. This also makes them more realistic and, ultimately, more sympathetic. Readers will admire heroes but they adore heroes who succeed despite their flaws. In fact, the more flawed the hero, the more sympathetic and, in the end, the more sweet the triumph.
I still want to get a shirt that says: “Beware. Novelist. I’m watching you. I just might write you into my next novel.” Novelists do write people they know into their novels, because it’s the people they know best who provide them with the best fodder to humanize a character. If you want to paint them as the antagonists, however, heed Norman Mailer’s advice: don’t make your characters too much like the people you live with, because then, you’d have to live with them and they’d never let you live it down. They can make your life unbearable, so be careful what you write about them or how you write them into your novel. Especially if it’s your spouse. Unless they don’t read your novels at all, then you’ll be perfectly fine. Still and all, I think it one of the most fun and entertaining things to do as a writer, to include bits and pieces of real people into my characters. I’m sure every great writer has picked traits from people they have encountered to make their characters more interesting and real. The trick is to change the physical characteristics and biography so the real people aren’t easily recognizable. Try it on some character sketches and have fun!