Tuesday 30 April 2013

[Writer's Blog] Creating Characters; A few Do's and a Definite Don't

In order to better understand and enhance my creative process ever since I decided to get back into story writing I turned to a variety of sources such as writing sites and a subscription to Writer's Magazine.  Much of what is being passed on to aspiring writers is on par with what I already know which is a relief. The only thing that has changed is the technology. I was disturbed to find however that under the guise of having stemmed from "published authors" there were some pointers that bordered on insane and if followed could cause more problems and possibly land one in prison. This has compelled me to put a few thoughts down here to assist fellow writers but also as an aide memoir for me because let's face it I would have a hard time raising the necessary bail money.

Image Credit; Riley Roxx

Characters Are All Around (DO)

Finding inspiration for believable characters is not as a hard as one might think. Unless you are living the life of a hermit you are surrounded by a rich limitless treasure of believable characters; other people. Theyare in our lives everyday from family and friends, passing strangers, colleagues all potential characters that could be worked into a story. 

People In Our Lives

Provided they have no objections people who feature in our daily lives from friends and family  to colleagues and acquaintances, can be crafted into fictional characters for the story.  Through years of cultivated relations we have been ushered through the door of someone's heart and mind where we learn about their greatest joys and their darkest fears. We also learn about their  strength of character and how they make their way through life's good times and the bad. Friends and family are the richest source as we know them well. Other people with whom we have relations (or dealings) such as acquaintances whilst not as intimately familiar we know well enough to draw inspiration. They say write what you know and the same goes for characterisation. You are surrounded by a wealth of human inspiration on a daily basis, so learn to utilise it. 

News and Literature

In order to be better writers we are called on to read, a lot and to observe extensively. This acts as an even richer source as thanks to the Internet we have access to people's stories that horrify and inspire (sometimes both!!!). This is another source that should be taken advantage of especially human interest stories although the idea can come from anywhere or anyone. For one story that involved competing athletes and the extreme measures used to win I based the two main characters on Olympic athletes. I prefer not to say which athletes but I inspiration from scandals involving athletes who went to great (and illicit) lengths to win. Magazines, news items, forums, social media can expose an author to a variety of stories and character traits to be used. 

People Watching

If like me you work best in a coffee shop or cafe with free WI-FI, stimulating & tasty beverages and a panoramic view of the surroundings then this is perhaps the best way to seek out and develop characters. Sit comfortably flip open your laptop and/or have a note book handy  and start discreetly looking around. See who is in the cafe with you and make notes about what you see or hear. Be sure to include dress, style, gestures, facial expressions, what people are eating and drinking etc. You can also use this to help the creative process flow by singling one or two people and then crafting a story around them. I once observed a couple entering a coffee shop, one of them was carrying a baby but there was no sign of the baby's pram/buggy, or even a bag of essential baby related items. I thought this was bizarre at first until a third person entered with said items. From observing them however I still created a number of scenarios from child kidnapping to meeting with prospective adoptive parents. One story even featured them as undercover spies and the baby was on loan. 

Caution is Key (Don't)

Remember when basing characters on real people (mainly living ones), whether they are people you know or have read about, be mindful that your sources are likely to be your readers. It can be flattering to recognise yourself in a piece of written work, and a little massaging of the ego never does any harm. However it is not hard for someone to take umbrage on what they read, especially if the portrayal is negative. This can cause breakdown in personal relationships and in some cases result in court action if you are seen to be defaming someone's character. 

Use these sources to add meat to the bones of your character and avoid the danger  of recreating them. Remember this is all about "creative" writing so be creative.

A Final Warning 

I mentioned earlier that I subscribed to Writers' Magazine, a very helpful publication full of interviews, insights, tips and of course prize winning competitions. As a free gift I received three books designed to teach yourself how to be a better writer, with one of them focusing on creative writing. In a chapter looking at Finding Believable Characters an exercise was prescribed as a principle means of character creation. Here is the exercise in full; 
Take yourself off into your nearest town or village. Spend some time really looking at your fellow citizens. Find someone who is as different from yourself as you can. Someone much older, say. Or much younger. And follow them. Keep a discreet distance but stay close enough to be able to watch how they move. If they are with companions, try and overhear what they say. You could even begin this exercise in a cafe, overhearing what your fellow customers are talking about and then following a selected target as he or she leaves the premises. Try and gather as much information about your target's life as you can and then, safely back at home, make some detailed notes. This should give you enough material on which to base a central character.

Image Credit; Sudhamshu

I can't even begin to detail what is wrong with this little exercise in building believable characters. Observing people sitting in a cafe, park, or on the bus stop is one thing but following them around? I am fairly certain that there are certain laws that prohibit such behaviour unless of course you are a policeman, member of the intelligence service, or Miss Marple. What is more alarming is the author's reference to "targets". Imagine if you will a stranger caught hanging around a school playground when questioned replies "it's OK officer, I am observing children at play for a story I am writing." 

What is suggested in the exercise is tantamount to stalking which is illegal. So anyone who has read the same book or have read this exercise in other publications then please, in the words of rapper Melle Mel , I implore you "don't don't don't do it, don't do it."

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