Thursday, September 8, 2011

Developing Characters, by Adrianne Sainte Eve

Creating characters is the most rewarding part of writing, because life is full of endless inspiration. As human beings none of us can live without each other, yet we are all self-centered, maddeningly unreliable, emotional and unpredictable. We are hypocritical, pretentious, annoying and rampant with contradictions. Nobody is consistent, which is what makes us all fascinating. Naturally, our fictitious characters must have some of these qualities. They must have their own delusions, hopes, fears, and subtle nuances, and they must have some admirable as well as some shameful traits. They come to life when we give them physical descriptions, nicknames and distinguishing marks. I love to dress and accessorize them, like imaginary paper dolls.

It is always easier to see the worst traits in other people, so I find that someone in life who really aggravates me is a great starting point for a character. Certainly some of us are truly vile. Though there may be no excuse for this, but there is always a reason. We are complex creatures and everyone has some redeeming qualities through the stench of pain that shrouds us.

Delving into insanity is the best of all challenges. I believe most of us start with similar mental equipment, which becomes warped in different ways. It is entertaining to wallow in the bizarre, contemplate some loathsome and disturbing ideas, when you can attach them to someone else. I have once been told this is sick, though I think not. As authors, we have the freedom to paint in whatever shades of gray seem entertaining.

I enjoy deciding how the various goings on will affect my characters individually. It intrigues me that none of us ever get anything right. We live in our own worlds, always misunderstand everything, put our own skew on it, and run off to act rashly under some misperception. I find that the most rudimentary idea for a story develops itself once I have created my characters and decided how they will fit together. It is a rare and challenging power to determine all their fates. Everyone can relate when terrible things happen to a character, especially when they are undeserved. All the clich├ęs; i.e.: life is tough, good guys finish last, no good deed seems to go unpunished, are about us feeling sorry for ourselves. So some of us must die young, for the sake of a good story, but conversely, some people just have all the luck. It happens. Though never to us, it seems. Still, the truly despicable are often nondescript, blend into the crowd and live their lives without incident. One might even find it therapeutic to get even with a rival, if only in one’s imagination. We have total license to exaggerate, hold up to ridicule, construct a grisly end and chuckle about it, though I admit nothing.

I recently read some opinions on whether or not it is better to write a story in the first person through the protagonist. There’s no doubt that this adds originality to the story. I always wonder how much of the protagonist is based on the author. Naturally, if narcissism demands, you can base the character on your very best self, though he or she must have some blemishes in the interest of genuineness. There is also an excellent opportunity here to sneak in your own personal rants without risk, or the occasion to develop the dark side of yourself, which would be amusing. Some freshness is lost when writing in the third person, but it often makes for a much clearer read. Sometimes it is better to disassociate. As the author, you can be the impartial watcher, just the record keeper, and can be as clinical as you desire.

I like the idea of writing from several people’s perspectives, each with an I voice. This can be confusing, but I say, so what? I personally don’t mind a bit of confusion because it makes me concentrate more. That said, I admit that I have been criticized for having so many characters in my book that it becomes hard to keep track of them. My publisher made me construct a directory as in certain Russian novels. But I felt they were all essential, and all I can say is pay attention.

The point is that as writers, it’s our own story and our own universe. We have free reign to create entire populations. It’s an incredible privilege.

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Adrianne Sainte-Eve was born in Budapest Hungary, and spent her childhood in, Quebec, Regina, Saskatchewan, and Vancouver, B.C. in Canada. She is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northern Illinois University, and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Adrianne,

Thanks so much for joining us today!

In my current story, I'm going to have far more characters than normal so I'll have to be careful about confusing the reader.


Tracy March said...

Interesting post, Adrianne. Character development is fun and daunting, with lots of unique opportunities that you have higlighted well.


Jenny Milchman said...

These are very interesting thoughts, Adrianne. I know of one author who does what it sounds like you do--Jodi Picoult. Interestingly, her publisher uses different fonts to differentiate. Anyway, congratulations again on HORIZONTAL COLLABORATOR'S debut, and I look forward to learning more about you and your work!

Alison DeLuca said...

Fascinating post. I love creating characters - it's like being Pygmalion. And I also love having a little, tiny streak of insanity - giving a protagonist a challenge as he or she works around agoraphobia, OCD, or even a condition like Asberger's. It's such fun, and as you say, very difficult to do, which makes it even more fun, like a puzzle.

Karyne Corum said...

I love your idea of attaching some loathsome traits, drawn from real life, to a character. I recently read somewhere that basing a character in your story(carefully hidden of course) on someone who was your nemesis in high school is not only good for a book, but cathartic as well.

I'll have to try that...;-)