Generating characters: bringing your monsters to life! (Tip 47) 1

Where do characters come from? We have to build them the same way Victor Frankenstein built his monster – out of bits and pieces of other people!

Here’s the link for the trigger game 🙂

There’s a story about the novelist Gustave Flaubert. According to the story, a gossipy correspondent was pestering him to reveal upon whom he’d based the scandalous character of Madame Bovary. Flaubert replied several times that the character was not based on any real individual but when his correspondent persisted, Flaubert snapped and replied, ‘Madame Bovary is me.’

The point, I suppose, is that when we write any character, we have only our own experience of emotions on which to draw. Even if your character lives on the planet Stigiwonk in the year 3030, if that character is afraid then it is to your own experience of fear that you must turn. We may be afraid for different reasons, may feel desire for different things, and may grow angry in different situations, but the experience of fear, desire, or anger is sufficiently universal, the writer must hope, that her own experience is transferable.

As for the external things, those too must come from real people. When we construct our characters in sensory terms, we give them a range of traits: an awkward formality to their speech, a distinctive mannerism, a limping walk, a type of spectacles. All these things we have to assemble from people we have seen or known. Your character might have your old headmaster’s awkward speech, your father’s tics and mannerisms, the shuffling walk of an elderly neighbour, and the glasses of a man you saw on the bus.

What nobody can do is invent someone from scratch. In fact, we can’t invent anything from scratch. Try it – try to think of a new colour. It’s impossible; we can think only of different shades. Similarly, when humans invented gods they could imagine them only as looking like men, or like animals, or like combinations of different creatures. Invention is only combining things that already exist in new ways. When people try to invent characters without basing them on real people, they usually invent nothing: they produce vague types of people, often types recycled from television, film, and other media.

Below this video you’ll find a link to our character generator trigger exercise, which is either a bit of fun or a psychologically traumatic piece of anti-therapy. From a writing perspective, let’s hope it’s the latter.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail image for this video is by Khánh Hmoong. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here:

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