On Writing: Characters

I am sure there are better writers than me who know exactly where their characters come from.  Me, I got no idea.  There are people in my book that I would love to claim, but the truth is that they showed up entirely themselves out of nowhere, and insisted on going their own way.

That being said, I do know where they don’t come from: some kind of autobiographical impulse.  I was at a Q&A session over the weekend with young actors.  Someone posed a question to the group about choosing characters for a one-act play and whether or not there was autobiography in the choice.  I was disappointed to hear the actors say yes.  Okay, so they were young and perhaps it is different for an actor than a writer.  But maybe a writer is just an actor who wants to try on the skin of everyone in the story…  A single character is rarely a portrait of the artist and not every word spoken or action taken by a character corresponds to something the author would do in real life.

(I wonder if anyone ever asks George R. R. Martin whether Cerci or Jon Snow are self-portraits.)

And there is, but not in the way that people think.  People tend to assume the portrait is in a single character, or a character’s experiences.  That’s not how it works.  Characters end up being a way to explore curiosity.  What would it be like to have the kind of mind that is 98% logic?  What flows out of that?  What makes that person tick?  Where did it come from?  How does it impact things that defy logic?  So when Miles takes satisfaction in having a messy problem that he has full permission to straighten out however he sees fit, that’s not me.  That’s not how I’d operate.  But I’m terribly curious about people who do function like that.

So there is a kind of portrait in the entire thing, a commentary on the writer’s value system, but it’s a portrait done by pointillism: if you look too closely, you’ll miss the entire thing.  You’ve got to step back for it to make sense.  And it isn’t going to be who the writer is, but what questions catch their attention and won’t let go, where their curiosities lie, and what they think matters.

On Writing: Characters

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