Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Where do you get your characters from?
    (Originally published on my old blog.)

    This essay may be familiar to some of you, because a version of it first appeared on my LJ a couple of years ago. I'm still struggling to work out how to import all the archived entries I've downloaded from my old blogs, so as that moment of Pauline revelation still seems to be some way off, I managed to find one that needed re-running and load it manually.

    This is about how I create characters, and it's one of the top five questions I get asked. Read on.

    Do I base characters on real people? No, no and thrice no. Some real people may seem fascinating, but they just don't have what it takes to become fiction characters. A buddy of mine who writes police procedurals doesn't agree with this, and fills his very successful thrillers with men and women who are not only real, but are also often individuals who I know personally. They just have their serial numbers filed off: but they're described in the smallest and - frequently - most baffling detail.

    But if you're not one of the dozen people who know this is what he does, does it matter? In my opinion - for whatever that's worth - yes, I think it does. Nicking real dialogue and speech patterns from the living (and sometimes the dead - I know no shame) is one thing; you have control over separate elements, just as you can cherry pick from real events and make them work.

    But nicking complete personality profiles isn't so easy. Real people in their entirety are almost never sufficiently interesting, three dimensional or stylised in their behaviour to survive in fiction, certainly not as a main character whose actions will drive the plot. If you mirror real behaviour patterns too faithfully, it starts to feel as if there are thin patches and inconsistencies; chunks of it might work, but the whole messy package doesn't. If you borrow from life, you have to be selective.

    Fiction is a distillation process. Just as you cut out most of the "er...um...ah" and sentence fragments of real speech in dialogue, the ers and ums and fillers of the personality also need a good trim. (And if you don't know what I mean about dialogue, compare your favourite example of realistic dialogue with a genuine transcript of a conversation. A very useful exercise indeed.) More recently, I've taken the example of asking a young child to draw an elephant as seen from the air. More often than not, they'll meticulously draw all four legs at full extension, the tail in its entirety, ears spread flat, trunk fully extended...but that's not what an elephant looks like from an aerial view. It looks more like a distorted egg timer with maybe a bit of tail, but the legs? No. Full ears? No. Trunk? Varies. There's nothing in the kid's drawing that's not elephant, but that's just not how the animal looks from that angle. The kid hasn't learned perspective yet.

    A writer needs that same perspective to know what to leave out of a character.

    Maybe I take this too seriously because I write by constructing characters, personality disorders and all, and then putting them in their environment, where they run like a computer model by interacting with other characters created the same way. I fit the character to the world they're in; I ask, "What kind of person would volunteer for a one-way space mission?" or some key niche marker like that, then work out who would fill it. Even with a character that I inherit in a shared universe, I can still develop (and deconstruct) them further by applying the same techniques of sociobiology and psychological profiling. And I think I've learned how to make characters really work every time. The books I write are completely character driven. Plot, as far as I'm concerned, is what characters do, not a maze that you put characters in and then force them to navigate through it.

    This is what I mean when I say that the characters run the plot: if they're solid enough, you know what they will and won't do, and even what they'd buy if you let them loose in a supermarket.

    I stay away from real life, or else I use it sparingly - such as rewriting battles from history - because real life doesn't have to make sense. Fiction does. And I know that's a worn-out warning, but I've had it proven to me time and time again. The very best scandal and real life soap opera I ever experienced would simply not make a novel, nor would the main people involved in it be believable characters, even though it left us speechless every day for a period of nine years. It was a must-see, but there was no internal logic in either events or characters that would stand the fiction test. It was too dumb, too repetitive, and too illogical.

    My police procedural buddy, of course, goes in exactly the opposite direction on real people, and he's not exactly starving. I happen to prefer to explore the world through someone else's mind and eyes, and I happen to be able to do it - it is, an actor tells me, exactly like method acting. It's becoming a different person for the duration of the performance, motivated by their motivations and thinking their thoughts. At the end, you step out of it; and you might be changed by that character, but they're not changed by you. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to know what it was like to be someone else, whether the world would look or smell or taste the same way that I experienced it; now I get those answers as best I can through "method writing." In a way, it's a controlled and voluntary excursion into a state that's similar - I believe - to dissociative identity disorder. Except people who suffer from that can't or don't choose when they manifest a separate personality, but I can switch it on and off at the keyboard, rather like the difference between lucid dreaming and the regular involuntary kind.

    I can lucid-dream too. Maybe the same brain wiring enables me to do both.

    © Karen Traviss 2008