Once upon a time, I wanted to be a psychologist ~ believe it or not, my first major at the University of Michigan was psychology. Seems strange for a girl who grew up playing the piano and writing stories, doesn’t it? I think this compulsion sprang from my fascination with people – why they act (and react) the way they do, how their emotions effect their behavior. This same fascination is why I love literature so much – where else can you meet so many fascinating and complex characters?
I recently read an article by Gail Godwin (an author whose characters I greatly admire), who has this to say about “Creating Characters With Depth” (The Writer, June 2007):
“Use yourself. Go deeply into your own feelings and look for the hidden truths, motives, and perspectives. For we all have more in common than you think.”
Godwin relates that she was once working on a story with a character who had recently become widowed. Trying to convey a sense of what this woman was feeling, without being trite, Godwin reflected on the way she herself felt when she was alone. She realized that she always felt a need to leave a light burning at night. So by having her character compelled to leave a light on, she was able to convey a sense of vulnerability without being maudlin.
“Observe others, observe yourself,” Godwin advises. “Practice putting gestures, habits, facial expressions into words.” My son was once quite interested in animation, and took some classes at the Disney animation studios. The artists talked about the way they imitated their characters antics in the mirror, and then drew what they saw. As writers, we can do the same thing with our characters – observe ourselves not only physically, but emotionally, to gain insight into the way people might react in a given situation. Godwin assures us that “you have enough self knowledge to take an imaginative leap from what you don’t understand about a character you’re trying to create to what you do understand about yourself.”
Creating characters gives the writer a chance to play God – to take bits and pieces from ourselves, from people we know, and put them together to create a unique individual. It takes lots of practice to be precise and compelling enough with words to get a person “down on paper” well enough so that he can “walk off the page” and into the reader’s imagination. As writers we have to be able to “reproduce with clarity” the looks, gestures, objects, and environments of people, because these are the things that make them who they are. “You have the power of observation and compassion necessary to penetrate to the depths of people and realize they are just as complicated as you are,” Godwin assures us. “The really great writer is on everybody’s side,” having empathy and understanding of their emotional needs and motivations.
Since my career in psychology didn’t quite pan out, I’ll have to be content with studying human nature with an eye to creating complex and entertaining characters. And isn’t that what makes reading, writing – and life itself!- so fascinating?
So how about you? Who are some of your favorite fictional characters? If you write fiction, how do you create believable and interesting characters?
More of what I’m learning about character development can be found at Moving Write Along – A Matter of Character, Part, I, II, and III
By the way – I could have written a really good description of myself having a complete meltdown about 30 minutes ago after I finished the first draft of this post (complete with links) and Blogger somehow mysteriously ate it! So much for the “automatically saves your draft” feature.