In her article, Character: Casting Shadow, from the Gotham Writer's Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction, Brandi Reissenweber, cautions us that if we use people we know for characters, we have to be willing and able to "use creative invention." In other words, we mustn't drive ourselves crazy trying to make our characters act just the way their "real life" counterpart would. "Let youself fictionalize these people," Reissenweber advises. "Transform them into characters that suit the needs of your story."
This is where the real fun of characterization begins. With the spark of an idea for a character, I now have complete control over who this person is and what she will become. But in order to create someone believeable to my reader, I have to know my character inside and out. Reissenweber offers a very thorough set of questions to help me mold character into the person I want and need her to become.
- Describe the character's physical appearance, distinguishing characteristics or mannerisms. Diana Lee is a large woman, in her mid-40's, big boned and somewhat overweight. Her long wavy, hair, which was once true blonde, has now turned a muddy shade of dishwater. When she's teaching, she wears it pulled back and captured with a large barrette. She wears 70's style horned rimmed glasses, with thick, "coke bottle" lenses, indicating her poor eyesight, and is constantly pushing them up onto her nose.
- What is the character's family background? Diana Lee has two sisters, both of whom live nearby, but with whom she isn't particularly close. She is, however, very close to her neice Laura, as well as to Laura's children. Laura often helps Diana Lee in caring for Harriet, Diana Lee's mother, who has been immobilized following a stroke. Diana Lee returned to the suburban town where she was born five years prior; she's currently living in the home where she grew up, caring for her mother. She spent some years after college living in Italy, where she was working as a professional singer and trying to "make it" in the world of opera.
- Delving deeper into the character's psyche, what is her biggest fear? what makes her laugh out loud? has she ever been in love? Diana Lee's biggest fear is that her career is over, and that she has never acheived the kind of recognition of her talent that she feels she deserves. She is amused by little - she takes a rather sardonic view of her students, and finds their attempts to create art "amusing." Her biggest pleasure comes from being with her young niece and nephew, and from playing with her cat, Isadora. She has been invovled in relationships with men during the time she spent in Italy - she would say she was "never in love" with any of them, when the truth is that she never allowed any relationship to progress to that point for fear of being sidetracked from her ambitions.
Reisenweber also offers additional, less obvious questions to consider about the character, such as~
- What is in the character's refrigerator? on her nightstand? in her bookshelves? on her CD player?
- Describe the charcter's feet~what are her shoes and socks like? does she wear shoes at all?
- What sights and smells would your character associate with their childhood kitchen?
- It's Sunday morning~what is your character doing? going to church? reading the New York Times in a coffee shop? lounging in bed with a lover?
- What is your character's strongest childhood memory?
- Your character is getting ready for a night out ~where is she going? what is she wearing? who is she going out with?
The answers to these in-depth questions allow the writer to create a real, three dimensional person. Not all of these characteristics will present themselves to the reader, and in fact, many of them probably should not. "But the more you know your characters, the more you will be able to present them on the page in a believable way," Reissenweber advises.
Obviously, a lot of thought and attention go into the creation of characters, much more so than I had realized. These are all the kinds of details that make characters jump off the page and into the reader's mind and heart, make them the sort of people the reader simply has to know more about.