Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living, Breathing Fake People

Any writer who goes about things through her characters is well familiar with the notion that fictional characters become almost real to those of us who conceive them and spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about them and then writing about them. These people who are nothing more than figments of our imagination become as real to us as people we know who actually move and breathe, even if we keep this little fact to ourselves. We can hear voices, imagine what a character will do in a given situation, even attribute a runaway plot to a character who isn't doing what we expected him or her to do.

But in the interest of creating three-dimensional characters who are able to engage a reader and draw them into the story, I have to wonder when a writer has gone too far. When the character becomes a little too real.

I'm sure each writer has his or her own particular line.

I have an entire village worth of characters who populate my brain, each person as unique and familiar to me as my own family members. And I've done some crazy things in my efforts to get to know the ins and outs of these folks.

I've interviewed my characters. Inserted myself into a scene, asked questions like a reporter and responded to the answers I was given, just as if I were as fictional as my character. I find this is a great way to fine-tune my character's voice. It also helps me dig deep, to follow threads that reveal motivation and deep seated feelings I'd never before considered. I have a lot of fun with this, and often it threatens to take over the actual writing of the story.

I've heard a song on the radio and thought about whether or not a particular character would like it. More often, I hear a song and think how much it suits a particular character or his/her situation. Usually the songs ends up on a playlist.

I've cruised through catalogs - on-line - looking for clothes I can imagine my characters wearing or the way I imagine their rooms might look.

I've come up with elaborate family trees.

I've created dossiers, complete with photos. Someday, I think these would be fun extras on a website for the published books. Hey, they did it with the James Bond movies.

I've filled out form after form, answered questionnaires and taken personality tests as my characters, and even explored their horoscopes, looking for tiny clues about what makes them tick.

I've sprayed cologne from the testers at the cosmetics counter onto a piece of paper or tissue and sealed it in a baggy so I can recapture the way I think a particular character smells. I think this was probably the closest to my personal limits line that I've ever gotten.

Things I've never done:

I've never bought an item for a character because I thought he or she would wear it/like it/want it. I did once buy a bayberry-scented candle because one of my characters used bayberry soap, and I wanted to check to make sure I liked the smell. I excused this by calling it research.

I've never accidentally called someone in my real life by a character's name.

I've never allowed my characters to actually interact with real people as if they were living humans themselves, a la the Brotherhood vampires on JR Ward's Black Dagger website.

I've never celebrated a fictional character's fictional birthday.

I've never let a character hijack my story. Sure, they may have introduced a tangent or two that I'd never thought about, but I've never had a problem with misbehaviour or downright mutiny.

In the end, however a writer goes about making her characters as real as they can be, the ultimate test is conveying that to the reader. Whatever gimmicks are necessary, I say go for it.


Amy Nichols said...

OMG I am the same way. So far my favorite part of developing the story is getting to know these people in my head. Mine all live in England around 1805.

I actually miss them when I'm done with a story.


Lynn M said...

I spend far too much time in the getting to know you phase! I come up with the idea of a particular character, and the next thing I know, I'm spending way too much time developing him or her, giving them a background and a personality. And then, once they've come to life for me, there is no chance I won't want to write their story.

In fact, that is what often paralyzes me - not know whose story to tell because I like them all so much!

Susan Whelan said...

I write creative non-fiction, so I don't personally identify with the connection between writer & characters, but I thought you might be interested in finding a copy of a book I reviewed recently called "Red Dress Walking" by S A Jones.

The central character in this book is a writer and is struggling to keep her perceptions of which world is real, the literary or physical one.

S A Jones is an Australian author and the book is published by Allen & Unwin.