Friday, 9 November 2007

Characters in search of an Author

To return to things that are better not said to an author, started here, I think the second most irritating (apart from questions about money and fame) is ‘do you base your characters on real people?’

This is such a common question that people obviously think it’s sensible but, really, it’s not.

Firstly, if you were any good, people would recognise themselves and be miffed if they weren’t presented as absolute saints. And who wants saints in any book they’re reading – as we’re always told, goodness is very hard to make engaging.

Secondly, it’s almost impossible to know anybody but your nearest and dearest as well as you need to know people you’re writing about. You need to know all sorts of arcane little details about them, even if those details never appear in the book. Who was their first kiss with? What food do they like best? How would they cope on a desert island? Which music would they take and why? If you don’t know them that well, they’ll only ever be cardboard characters, people you’ve put in the book to move the action forward.

So why the very prevalent belief that we all base our characters on people we know? Maybe it’s because readers see similarities between characters in books and individuals they know and therefore assume that they must also be similar to people the author knows.
Or maybe it’s because people who don’t write simply cannot imagine a scenario in which people who have no objective existence would start saying and doing things inside their own head.
But that is what happens!
Characters have a physical and emotional reality which, sometimes, feels more real than that associated with actual, living people. My characters don’t ‘take on’ a life – that would imply that at some stage they were lifeless – they simply spring, fully formed, into my mind. Ta-dah! Here I am! It doesn’t feel as if I’m making them up, or making up things about them (though, to retain any vestige of credibility, I must acknowledge that that must be what actually happens) – my perception is that I spend time finding out what they’re like.

So, far from basing my characters on real people and making them behave accordingly, I let them be who they are and watch what they’ll do. Because, sure as eggs is eggs, if I try and make them do something they didn’t want to do, they’ll only sulk.


Akasha Savage said...

I completely agreed with every word you said. I would like to add just one thing about my own characters though...if you dig deep enough, they all have a little bit of me in them. Some have my good bits...some my horrid!!

Alis said...

Thanks for that Akasha - yes, maybe our nastier characters are an outlet for our less nice characteristics. i know i never have to work hard to find a character's nasty side!