There are two schools of thought when it comes to fiction—the plot-driven story and the character-driven story. So far we’ve largely focused our exercises on plot ideas. In this exercise, let’s conjure up a character and see what he or she decides to make of his life.
Robert Penn Warren—
“I had no idea where the story was going, if anywhere. Sitting at the typewriter was merely a way of indulging nostalgia. But something has to happen… and the simplest thing ever to have happen is to say: Enter, mysterious stranger. And so he did.”
There are a variety of ways to come up with a character. Here are a few place to start:
History. John Harding, in Pat Conroy’s Beach Music, is a vulnerable, mentally ill man from a violently dysfunctional family. After his brothers give him a hard time, his mother says to him, “They don’t understand my baby boy, do they?” John Harding tells his mother that it’s so scary, he’s always frightened. “They represent the normal world,” he says.
And in his mind, his brothers do indeed represent the faceless humanity. The concept applies to all of us—t he quality of our early relationships teaches us what to expect from those who inhabit our worlds. How and what we adapt to as children lays the foundation for how we approach our adult lives. A method, then, of developing a protagonist is to create a history, travel its effects, and find our characters somewhere along their road of self-discovery.
- Was your protagonist the lost middle child?
- Was she the darling baby of the family who now has a sense of entitlement and no one delivers on her unspoken expectations?
- Perhaps he was bullied or subjected to chronic ridicule.
- Maybe he was a golden child, a whiz kid who’s outlived his glory days.
Perspective. A character’s perspective, if skewed enough, can become a plot in and of itself. Take Peter Carey’s Bliss. Good ole bloke Harry Joy, once loved by all, regains consciousness after open heart surgery believing that he has died and now resides in Hell, a pseudo world peopled by “actors” standing in for friends and family. Convinced that his loved ones are the enemy, Harry Joy sheds his passivity and optimism, and ends up facing reality for the first time in his life. The concept—a unique set of eyes—lands Harry in fantastical situations and makes for a comical and profound story.
Can you think of an original perspective that would take you and your readers on an intriguing journey?
Physical Trait. Occasionally you read a book and come on a character with a harelip or scar, perhaps a chronic illness, maybe a limp—some apparent limitation or disfigurement for which the character has a degree of difficulty coping. While I can’t say why, which should rightfully make my bias suspect, I find “the defining disfigurement” a trite throwback from the classic era when the Western world had its share of irreparable cosmetics. Unless your story takes place in the past or is set in a developing nation—or the physical trait is integral to your story*—I would give serious thought to employing the device. It’s not a hard-fast rule, simply a hunch on my part. For the moment, though, let’s assume my hunch is sound.
We’re talking about creating a character. What if, behind the scenes, backstory material, your character once had a physical trait that they thought was hideous or were made by others to feel shame, to taste rejection, to intimately know every nook and cranny of a lonely existence? Now turn the clock ahead several years. His or her physical trait is remedied, but her psyche still bears the scar. How might this affect her? Who might she have become?
In his autobiography Self-Consciousness, John Updike talks about how enduring a psoriasis-plagued childhood shaped his life and sense of self. I don’t think many people ever caught sight of his psoriasis, but whether we know it or not, we saw its effects.
(As a student of writing, I recommend reading everything John Updike ever wrote, and his autobiography is no exception.)
Personality Trait. What personality traits are most attractive or off-putting to you? Choose one and build a persona.
I’m an Anne Tyler fan. Her quirky, if not eccentric, and always endearing characters come to life on the page and, I dare say, in the hearts of her readers. While I’ve never lugged a decorated Christmas tree from my living room and carted it across the street to a neighbor’s house, the episode (from Noah’s Compass) somehow seems reminiscent of some of my crazier antics. I identify with Tyler’s characters, if only because I enjoy a laugh. Like a good many of us, her protagonists act on their impulses, blurt out their thoughts, and find themselves mired in the complications of their faux pas. They are the human condition painted in bright colors, and Tyler is a master creator.
Bring those irresistible people who model the height of individuality to life and populate your stories with them. Venture out on the pursuit of their dreams, walk with them through their crises, and celebrate their triumphs.
Speaking of dreams, you could start with a palpable longing and build your character from the heart out. Perhaps a motto or fatal flaw would provide you with the basic building blocks. Or how about spring-boarding from a line of dialogue?
While rifling through Pat Conroy’s Beach Music, a passage caught my eye.
“This country is so full of drunkards and perjurers and scoundrels, whoremongers, Satanists, and tax evaders.”
Can we agree that the statement is dripping with personality? Who would say such a thing?
Write a fresh line of dialogue or look through the books on your shelves for something that jumps off the page with a face and past summoned by your imagination, then sketch that person.
Life is stranger than fiction. Look around. This place we call home has more than its share of larger-than-life characters. And you won’t be the first writer to base your protagonist on a public figure. Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Wells in the film Citizen Kane, is apparently based on media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Robert Bloch, in his novel Psycho, based Normal Bates on the true-life murderer Ed Gein. Jack Crawford, in Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence of the Lambs, is based on John E. Douglas, a one-time Agent-in-Charge of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. Even actor Johnny Depp based his Jack Sparrow role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on inspiring fodder. Melding Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones with Dudley Moore’s Arthur character led to a mesmerizing—can’t take your eyes off him—loose-limbed swagger.
And there’s a lesson for writers in Depp’s performance. The producers of Pirates of the Caribbean saw Jack Sparrow as a young Lancaster-type. When Disney executives eventually sat down to watch rushes, they scratched their heads, asking if Depp was playing the character as drunk or gay. Michael Eisner alleged groused, “He’s ruining the film.” The point I’m hoping to emphasize is that Depp was given a prototype and he ran with it, making it his own. In other words, borrow from what inspires you, don’t carbon-copy.
Have Character, Will Write
If you’ve come up with a character you can live with for the next few years, stand up, stretch your legs, and give yourself a pat on the back. And when it’s time to return to work, ask yourself this—
What is the worst thing that can happen to this individual?
Voilà! You’re on your way.