Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Creating independent characters

A classmate in my MA program once told me I was the only student with a central character who wasn't basically me. I believe he meant to compliment my originality, but at the time I thought, "If you only knew me better, you'd see so much of me in Project Sparkle."

His comment got me thinking, and the more I thought, the more I worried. I am not my main character. Project Sparkle is far from memoir. Yet I share an inner core with my character. If I were in her shoes, if I had nothing to lose, I imagine I'd make some of her same mistakes.

Is that poor writing? If I can never escape a specific handful of character traits, will I be destined to write the same book over and over? Imagine dozens of novels, each with dozens of Annes running around their pages.

At least I'm in good company. Author E M Forster once said, rather humbly: "I have only got down on to paper, really, three types of people: the person I think I am, the people who irritate me, and the people I'd like to be."

Perhaps that's what character creation is about. We draw on our hopes and fears, friends, our boss, nosy relatives, the stories around us. Of course we want to mix things up, throw in details that are decidedly not us (in my previous novel, my main character was a math whiz. Hah!). But at the end of the day, I am the creator of my novel. Its world is going to resemble me.

And while that world may be a limited creation, literature can also spawn an incredible universality. Forster may have been writing about himself, but how is it that his characters also speak to me? Good books are magic like that.

Do you ever worry that your characters are basically you? Do you try to change them?


  1. Sometimes I worry about this, but I'm glad to see that my MC from my new wip is very different from the MC of my other wip. I still can't help but feel there's a bit of me in both.

  2. When I look back at some of my "drawer" manuscripts, definitely there was a lot (too much!) of me in the main character.

    Now I think I've got more distance - my characters reflect what I know so they are inevitably going to have some of "me" in them, but it's more like a friendship - my best friend and I have a lot in common, but there are also things that set us apart and make us uniquely who we are.

    The key for me was outlining - when I was a pantser, my characters ended up being thinly veiled "me's". With an outline I develop everything more fully from the outset, and the characters become unique individuals.

    Interesting topic!


  3. I agree that putting more time into the up front planning of a novel pays off in terms of developing more differentiated characters. Sometimes I try to create a character that is different from me on purpose, because one of the great things about writing is that it provides an opportunity to explore a different life.

  4. That IS a great feeling, Medeia, to realize we can create something different. Like you, I went out of my way to make sure the the character in my current wip (Project Demo) is completely different from my character in Project Sparkle. Perhaps it's partly about challenging ourselves to express ourselves in different ways with each novel, even if that same "core" of us still stays.

    Elisabeth, what an interesting comparison to a friendship! I love that way of thinking about characters, and may try to put myself in that frame of reference in the future.

    And how interesting that for both you and Andrea, outlining helps you to create more original characters! I'm not much of an outliner, but I do create a lot of character sketches, perhaps achieving a similar outcome.

    Andrea, I LOVE how you phrased that, that writing "provides an opportunity to explore a different life." So true and refreshing to hear. I think I've tried to change up characters to make them different from me so I'm not chained to myself and writing thinly veiled autobiography. But I've never thought of changing characters up so I could explore a whole different life. I love that mindset and will have to remember it! Thank you.

  5. Anne, this has bugged me ever since I read that all writers write about themselves. I look at my mc and think. . . really?

    I enjoy developing characters who are several strokes away from me.

  6. Drat. I just lost what I wrote. I come at writing from the same place I come at acting. I never set out to "play myself." However my mind and body are the tools I use to create new characters and therefore there is some of me in each of them. Love the EM Forster quote. Thank you for this though filled post.

  7. Pen & Ink: So sorry you lost what you wrote--what a pain! But thanks so much for taking the time to comment (a second time!). I really love your comparison of creating a character to acting, and the way both use the same body. It's a great way (metaphorical and literal!) to explain the process of creation.


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