Ernest Hemingway once remarked that authors shouldn’t create characters: they should create real people.
Too true. Though what he actually meant is that the onus is on authors to develop characters who are compelling – who present as real, multi-dimensional, shades-of-grey people. Not cyphers with collections of ‘characteristics’.
But that begs the question – authors inevitably draw inspiration from what they see around them. To what extent, then, should ‘real’ characters be just that – real?
I don’t mean plots where the kid that used to give you atomic wedgies at high school, got you punished for stuff you hadn’t done, and so forth, ends up in your story being slowly lowered feet-first into an industrial meat grinder, while everybody jeers and laughs at him.
What I am actually talking about is the technique where the real people you see around you lend their behaviours and nature to a character you’re developing. All authors do it. Sometimes to excess – there have been occasional lawsuits when someone took exception to their very obvious personal inclusion in a story.
And that is the question – how far should authors ‘reproduce’ the people around them? My thought is that what authors see around them is always grist to the mill: it all teaches authors how people are made, how they behave, and what constitutes the human condition. Writing from experience.
However, simply describing somebody you’ve seen or know, in every detail, isn’t the way to do it. There are a whole lot of reasons why, including the risk of offending the person being character-cloned. But the main one is that it isn’t creative. Authors don’t learn from it – what authors learn from is being able to mull over what these people are like, to understand it, and to then integrate that understanding into something new. This is what ‘writing from experience’ really means.
To me that’s the way ahead for character creation – and a way of making it real.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015