There are many methods for creating fictional characters. We’ll look at how to:
- create characters from our imaginations
- use people we know and alter them to be unrecognizable
- create conglomerates using characteristics from a number of people
- use actual people
In order to create a character, we need to know what we expect from that individual. Allow me to use some examples from my historical series. In my first book, I wanted two main characters for their specific perspectives of the events of the time and for contrast: one male and one female, one rich and one middle-class. Certain attributes for Katarina Hildebrandt came from me, from my mother, from other women I knew, to be formed into a woman who was shy but inwardly stronger than she realized.
Now, it’s important to make sure all our characters don’t resemble us. We need to make them unique, choosing paths we might never take.
Katarina’s male counterpart, Johann Sudermann, took on some of the traits of my maternal grandfather but also developed some unexpected ways of his own. I was able to give him a few of the experiences of my grandfather in his Red Cross service during World War I. We are free to incorporate real events and experiences and fit them into the lives of our characters in order to make them more realistic and credible.
For colour and a completely different perspective, I introduced Paul Gregorovich Tekanin. He was strictly a product of my imagination, a minor character included to portray the conflict between the Mennonites and the Russian peasants. However, Paul Gregorovich refused to go away, becoming an integral part of all three books in the series and adding conflict and fascinating information I had not previously been aware of. We may be surprised when we allow our creations to act according to their wishes, within limits.
A character from my second book, Wilhelm Enns, is based largely on my paternal grandfather in looks and backstory. He was a lean, handsome, moustached widower, with three young children who needed a mother. It was easy to describe him as I held his photo in my hand.
Heinrich Hildebrandt, Katarina’s father, was based almost completely on what I could discover about my husband’s great-grandfather, a wealthy philanthropist and dedicated pacifist.
Besides these character creations, we can also use real people in our novels. Including actual historical or living persons in our work is trickier than creating our own characters in that we must portray them as accurately as possible.
For example, the name Nestor Machno, when mentioned to a couple of elderly gentlemen who had experienced the revolution in Russia, caused shudders even after all those years.
There are many resources for whatever we are writing, and sometimes they don’t agree. What if two sources disagree on a character’s motivation? In my case, I weighed the odds, considering what I knew of the man and chose the most probable course. We do the best we can, always remembering that history is written by the victors.
A question that might come up when using real people in our fiction is, what if their lives are less than exemplary? Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted us to write nice things about them, they should have behaved better.” Great quip, but perhaps less than conscientious on our part as writers. We must carefully think through the responses our actions may bring forth.
I have in my library a great resource for characterization, a book called Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley. He offers helpful ideas for altering or disguising the people we use in our stories.
A few ideas for learning to know our characters is to apply personality tests. These are available online at such sites as: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp. These kinds of checks can help us keep our characters true to themselves. There’s also a great downloadable resource from Jeff Gerke called How to Find Your Story at http://www.marcherlordpress.com/bookstore/writers-helps/how-to-find-your-story-by-jeff-gerke/. Also available is Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist at http://www.marcherlordpress.com/bookstore/product/character-creation-for-plot-first-novelist-by-jeff-gerke/.
The better we know our characters, the better they will be able to tell the story. We must also remember that every main character must change over the course of the story. These changes can be plotted on a character arc.
When we develop unique, three-dimensional characters, they will become part of us, sometimes more real than the people around us.
Stay tuned next month for a closely connected element: dialogue.
Janice Dick writes historical and contemporary fiction,
inspirational articles and book reviews.
She also edits and presents writing workshops.