My Literary Boot Camp group recently held a reboot camp, in which each of us was asked to prepare an essay on the craft of writing. Here was mine...
“Writing novels is a cannibal's art, in which one often mixes small portions of one's friends and one's enemies together, seasons them with imagination, and allows the whole to stew together into a savory concoction."
- Diana Gabaldon, Voyager
Every character you’ll ever write inevitably contains bits of you and bits of people you know or know of. Writers are often asked where they got the inspiration for their main characters. The answers are usually along the lines of, ‘my dad,’ ‘my neighbor,’ ‘my grandma,’ ‘my dog,’ ‘Hitler.’ In creating a character, you are Dr. Frankenstein. You sequester yourself in your clandestine lab, don your lab coat, lay out your scalpels and saws, and send out your lackey. This lackey is your muse, and you won’t necessarily know body parts he’ll return with, or that he’ll harvest from, as Gabaldon put it, your friends and enemies.
Your novel will be one big pot of mystery, cannibal gumbo, because you don’t always know what ingredients you’re using (your lackey might bring back an Abbie Normal brain, for instance). So, it’s good to shed some light on your characters, to peel back that white sheet and take a look at the character you’re lifting up to the lightning storm to see if you like the monster you’re about to create. Will it stumble about? Will it rampage across your novel and wreak havoc? Will it kill everyone you hold dear? Will it even come to life?
To answer these questions, it helps to understand where your characters come from—an amalgam of people in your life—so you can better control your end result. You can’t guarantee the flavor of your cannibal stew if you don’t know its ingredients.
In creating your heroine, Brunhilda the Dragon Slayer, did you find that you relied heavily of your memories of your sweet grandmother? If so, then the next time Brunhilda is staring down the maw of the dragon that slayed her parents and you find yourself with writer’s block, don’t ask yourself, “What happens next?” Ask yourself, “What would Brunhilda do?” Or, “What would Grandma do?”
This lesson was grilled into me while writing my first novel. I faced a scene in which the antagonist and his soldiers were chasing down the band of heroes and was confronted with a rocky ridge behind which the fleeing heroes had disappeared. I found myself stumped as to what should happen next. It struck me after 15 minutes of fruitless brainstorming that I was asking the wrong question. I needed to see that rocky ridge through the eyes of my antagonist. He was a soldier based, in part, on my grandfather (only the soldier parts, mind you), and I knew in an instant what my Grandpa would do (what should happen next). He had his men silently dismount and search the ridge, knowing full well that the heroes were likely to lay an ambush for him. The action proceeded from there.
Understanding that characters are borrowed from those around us helps with another problem. Your grandma may have actively played the role of grandma when it came to grandmothering you. That’s how she fit into your story. But in her story, the only role she ever played was that of the main character. Stephen King talks about this in his book, On Writing. No character should think of himself as ‘the sidekick’ or ‘the comedic relief’ or ‘the stupid henchman.’ Each character should think of himself as the main character in your novel (even if that isn’t how you cast him). You’ll find that as you keep this in mind, your characters will be a lot less like the clumsy monster of the Frankenstein movies, and much more like the real boy Pinocchio became.
Recently, I was ruminating on a story that was to take place in my home town. One of the central scenes was of the protagonist’s first encounter with a werewolf. To write myself into the scene and see if I liked the image of a werewolf metamorphosing on a local downtown street, I decided not to give too much thought to who the main character might be. The focus was on the werewolf, after all. So I cast one of my best friends in the role.
The results were magical (if not in my writing, then in my experience). The whole scene leaped out at me. I’ve known this friend since junior high. I didn’t have to create any back story for him. I didn’t have to figure out what he wore, or what he likes to eat for breakfast. I already knew all those answers. I know him so well, I knew exactly how he would respond to a werewolf assaulting him on his way to Ludy’s Barbecue.
In that moment (well, over the course of a lunch break), I understood how much easier writing is when you truly know your characters, when you, as Dr. Frankenstein or as that cannibal cook, know exactly what you’ve concocted. The scene wrote itself because I didn’t have to make up the character as I went.
We should each know our primary and secondary characters so well. It makes writing so much easier. To demonstrate this, I offer up this writing challenge: choose a story intro or scene that you’ve been struggling with and plug in one of your best friends or family members into the role of the main character. See what happens to your writing when you know your character through and through.