Behind every fictional character lies a creative author. Ever wonder where they all come from? Most of the better books I've read are chunked full of interesting, sometimes mind-boggling people. This creation talent certainly isn't a new one. Writers have been "giving birth" to crazies, beauties, bigots, liars, preachers, royalty, etc., for as long as the trade's been around.
I recently polled several authors with questions regarding their fiction characters. Following is a fraction of the most intriguing answers:
How did you come up with your actual characters? Are some of them you, or a "blend" of you?
One author says, "If you knew me at all you'd be able to pick out parts of my characters that resemble me. I usually come up with the situation or story line first, and then create a character to fit into that situation. I don't think I've ever created a character first."
Another writes, "Part of my personality always oozes into my character's, but they are usually a combination of personalities I've come in contact with over my life experience. When I get a "vision" for a story line I see the entire scene in my head - the town, the character's houses, the characters. It's as though I've been dropped into a movie scene. I get the initial dump of information, and then everything develops as the story develops."
This author thinks it might be unusual, but she says "My characters come fully grown, fully dressed, and with names and a complete personality. They were alive to me at the very outset and their personalities are a composite of lots of people, making them very unique."
Most answers were along the same lines and worded similarly to this: "My characters are a blend of people I have known, and I throw in a few characteristics I have "borrowed" from others. In reality, they are a mixture of many people. My main characters always have qualities I either have or wish I had, plus emotional characteristics that I've experienced, so that I know what my characters are feeling and why, and also how they react to situations."
One author advised "not to have too much of you in your characters, or else they won't have their own identities. You have to develop characters that will think and act differently than you would. And don't always attribute your way of thinking to the 'good' guy and give the 'bad' guy traits that aren't you. Try to be unbiased when your characters interact with one another."
When asked, "How did you come up with their names?" the answers were quite complex.
For last names, one author uses a system of putting consonants and vowels together and then checks her CD-ROM of US telephone numbers to make sure no such name actually exists. For first names, she uses common ones that fit each character.
The most unique answer came from a lady who gets her names from visits to the cemetery. She reads the gravestones and mixes and matches the names that she finds suitable.
The most common source mentioned for names was baby name books. Most of these books list the name as well as different spellings and their meaning. One author wrote, "If your character is weak, then look for a name that describes something weak."
One gentleman said that his characters just come to him. "In over twelve novels and over 500 different characters, 90% came 'just like that.' Their names were buzzing around in my head days before I added them to a story. In fact, that's why some actually got added. They were first a minor character, and by the third rewrite or three books later, they were major, major MAJOR!"
Authors mentioned several things to keep in mind when choosing names. (1) Don't use a "dated" name such as Heather for a Midwestern mid-40s office receptionist; use a name that fits the time that the character would have been born. (2) Use names that fit the character's nationality and ethnicity. (3) Don't use a modern name for a middle-aged man or woman, i.e., Zoe, Ariel, Chloe, Chandler, Colton, etc.
Lastly, when asked if they put a face to their character, I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all do. One author said she doesn't have a face to begin with, but as she adds to the character, the face becomes clear. Another said that she has actually bought portraits or found photos that closely resembled her characters on two occasions. More than one author said they keep a scrapbook of pictures they've cut out of books or magazines and refer back to it as they write. This keeps a fresh memory of their character's face.
Favorite Fiction Characters listed by those polled: Iago in Othello, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Father Ralph in The Thorn Birds, Elkanah Bent from the North and South series, the old fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, and Jack Torrance in The Shining.
Fiction characters sure liven things up don't they? Without them, the story wouldn't be near as personal, much yet near as fun. After all, my favorite novel would be gone with the wind if it were not for my favorite fiction character (Nancy Marie's too) Scarlett O'Hara.
In my next column, I hope to find out which fiction character you would like to be? Think about that one and email me with the character's name, the author, and why you'd like to be him or her.