What a Character

I am a writer. I do lots of different kinds of writing and I am the beneficiary of a long series of writing teachers, both official and otherwise. But in my ability to create a fictional character I am self-taught through hit and miss and practice. I suspect most of us are this way, that we invent the ability to invent as we go along.

I don’t really know, though, because character-building is not something writers seem to talk about much–not with me, anyway, and not in the books and articles on writing I have read. Maybe it’s time we compare notes?

Two processes

In all cases, I do something like constructing an outline and then, as the outline grows, it begins to come alive, to take charge of its own development and become someone distinct. From there, I start to feel more like a spectator and less like the director of its growth–the transition is never abrupt or complete, though. It’s less a hand-over and more a collaboration in which the other entity, the character, gradually becomes more dominant.

Sometimes I start from the inside and gradually discover the character by looking out at the world through the character’s eyes. Sophie, from To Give a Rose developed this way, as has Daniel, of The School with No Name. In each case I started writing in the voice of the character with very little preparation or deliberate outlining. I knew nothing other than the situation each was in–an unexpectedly pregnant artist in one case and a newly expelled college student in the other. To write each one I became the character and then simply wrote, the same way I am writing now as myself.

In other cases, I start from the outside by imagining an existing character–usually but not always a real person-moving through the scenes. Sometimes I deliberately add alterations, other times I use the image of the model unaltered. Sometimes the initial model is a collage of people, other times I start with just one, but in either case the character is likely to go through a series of successive models, each adding a layer, plus I often develop character aspects by listening to music. The song reminds me of the character and as I listen to the song I become aware of nuances in the character I had not thought of before.

Curiously, even if there was only one model and even if I made no deliberate alteration, the character who develops is seldom recognizable as similar to the model. They develop their own integrity as people, and that is always more important to me than fidelity to the model. Thus, “any similarity to real persons, living or dead” really is coincidental.

Kay, from To Give a Rose developed in this way. He began with a friend of mine who was tall, slender, intelligent, and, in many ways a good friend–as is Kay. But the developing character was also influenced by that of the late David Graybeard, a wild chimpanzee whom I read about in the course of my research. David was kind, considerate, and confident without arrogance. The original human model did not have that confidence, but Kay does. Finally, I encountered an alternative interpretation of chimpanzee social behavior in a book called The Egalitarians, Human and Chimpanzeeby Margaret Power, and I adapted her vision of leadership to Kay.

Kay took about five years to grow and no longer resembles the original human model. He has come too far. Curiously, he now resembles two men I met after I wrote most of Kay’s scenes: physically, he is the australopithecine equivalent of one of my grad school professors; and in Kay’s humor, integrity, and humble dedication to others, he is very much like my husband. Perhaps he prefigures these people in some mysterious way.

An example

Gethrie was one of my favorite characters in To Give a Rose. He began with, and was always strongly influenced by, a human man I’ll refer to as B. I knew B for less than a year and I never knew him well–we worked together and occasionally attended the same parties. He was a daredevil, a leader, and a gifted teacher, just as Gethrie is. Like Gethrie, he had an intense need for social dominance which he exercised through humor and generosity. I knew him as a fascinating human being and an incredible athlete; he did things I had not thought possible and, under his influence, so did I.

I did not deliberately alter B to make Gethrie, although the circumstances of the story created alterations on their own. Most obviously, Gethrie is not human. As an australopithecine ape, he cannot talk or participate in the complex human social interactions of which B was a master (and probably still is–he’s past-tense only because we fell out of touch). So I had to do a good bit of translation, figuring out how to express the core of B’s personality, abilities, and interests within a very different context. Second, Gethrie’s story plays out across 38 years and with his family and closest friends. I knew B for less than a year and saw him only at work among transient, circumstantial friends. So, again I went through a process of translation, making a whole lifetime out of the suggestion of a couple of months.

Some of the things Gethrie does in the story are based directly on things B did, while others were suggested by the plot outline and still others grew out of my research on chimpanzees. The tensions over dominance between Gethrie and his sister, Geo, are based on interactions B had with a friend and co-worker, while Gethrie’s power struggle with Lemno is based loosely on that between two captive chimpanzees named Yeroen and Luit, as described in a book by Frans deWaal. Gethrie’s disturbingly violent episodes are based on events among wild chimpanzees as described by Jane Goodall.

In making Gethrie the leader of chimpanzee-style inter-community violence, I put myself in an interesting and difficult position; I like Gethrie, both for himself and because he is a reflection of B, a man I admire, and yet he does things that, were he human, would make him a monster. I don’t remember setting that up on purpose. Rather, it made sense that Gethrie would respond that way given the situation I put him in. The story grew as organically as the character did. Once I realized what was happening, I knew that Gethrie’s violence would serve the goals of the book–to reveal a world in which human ideas of good and evil, and the human tendency to look away from whatever does not fit our narrative, don’t and can’t apply.

I could not have predicted, when I began, that Gethrie would be able to carry that weight. How do you create a character who encompasses the behavior of half a dozen different men of two different species and is simultaneously a generous bully and an innocent killer?

I don’t know. I didn’t do it alone. Gethrie helped.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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One Response to What a Character

  1. Pingback: Would You Mind if I Made You Immortal? | News From Caroline

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