Our Characters, Ourselves

This article is more than 8 years old.
Why the development of "fictional" characters often tells us more about the writer — than the character. (Photo: annamatic3000/flickr)
Why the development of "fictional" characters often tells us more about the writer — than the character. (Photo: annamatic3000/flickr)

Where fictional characters come from, and how they’re created, is often a puzzle.

There are writers who take nearly everything from real life, using physical traits as well as true stories and histories. Aunts, brothers, neighbors, old school friends and parents are all fair game. While it’s true enough that real people may have 1) interesting lives; 2) strange encounters; 3) unusual sexual experiences, they don’t always pay off fictionally.

Often enough, real people are boring. They have conversations that lead nowhere, they laugh at private jokes no one can understand, and they keep secrets that are never revealed.

I have three writer friends who wrought vengeance on ex-husbands by creating obnoxious characters in their images. Much was vented, but nothing was published. The men who had brought so much unhappiness turned out to be stick figures when set into novels — one-sided creeps no one really wanted to spend time with, not even in a book.

Which leads me to believe there is more to a fictional character than merely transposing the traits of real people. Real people, after all, don’t make sense, and their choices are often highly unbelievable. More often than not, they don’t make for good fiction.

Then there are novelists who want to “escape” real life and real people and create alternate universes. They are the ones who wear headsets while writing in Starbucks, rather than pulling their chairs close to strangers, the better to jot down random bits of overheard dialogue. These “escapist” cases’ characters are made up of a combination of memory, imagination, literary influences and shared mythology. In other words, equal parts experience and fantasy.

This explains how writers with very little life experience can create characters that appear to be so unlike themselves. Exhibit A: Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s classic novel “Wuthering Heights.” Bronte, who lived a sheltered life with her sisters and father in Haworth, England, rarely going farther than the moors surrounding the village, created the most psychologically complicated male character in literature.

There are those who say Heathcliff was partially modeled on Emily’s brother, Branwell, a talented but self-destructive young man likely addicted to alcohol and laudanum, and thought to be in love with a married woman he could never possess. These facts may have been the skeleton for the character of Heathcliff, but the emotional power that brings him to life as a separate being comes from Bronte’s imagination. If indeed there was a human model for the character, then the author added so many levels of her own insights that another, stronger being was formed.

In my own work, I’ve always considered myself to be an “escapist” writer. After all, I’d always been an “escapist” reader, wanting to leave the harsh realities of my own world and enter into fictional worlds that would offer me solace. When I became a writer, I believed my characters were fashioned from individual parts of my own subconscious. It seemed to me that if I took a mirror with my own image, then threw it on the ground so that it shattered into a thousand pieces, each glimmering shard would be the core of a fictional character.

But in writing my most recent novel, “The Dovekeepers,” set in ancient Israel and narrated by four women experiencing the sorrow of war, I was surprised to find that my characters were nothing like me. In fact, they all possessed qualities I lacked and desired: One was independent, one was willing to sacrifice everything for those she loved, one was fearless, and one was wise. All were survivors despite the odds. I wrote not from experience, but from desire: These women were not who I was, but who I wanted to be. I wrote these characters as a lesson for myself.

Theirs was a tale I needed to hear, told by the voices of women I may have invented, but who knew far more than I did about what it meant to be human. Maybe this is what I’d wanted all along — not an escape, but a story that would help me find a way to live in the very real world.

This program aired on July 30, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.