Selfish? Pardon. I meant ‘based on oneself’.
Virtually all writers, I’m going to argue, use their own experiences, thoughts and perceptions to guide character.
No, this doesn’t mean they write about themselves; not at all. It simply means that the only way we have to comprehend and therefore write about human perceptions is to think and feel them ourselves. Let’s call that 10% of the process. The other 90% is, of course, extrapolative invention.
I’ve never had a broken leg or fallen out of an aeroplane. But I’ve hurt my toe and fallen off a horse. I’ve seeing the giddy wheee! of scenery blurring past and felt the crunch of iron-hard ground. The rest, I suspect, is internet research.
The beauty of having a self — an embodiment — is that you’re your own best information gathering device. The other beauty is that you can use this information to make even borrowed or stolen characters seem ‘real’. Selfish writing lives on the page because it gives the sense of an actual person, not a cypher.
Of course, you may not want ‘true’ characters, or even particularly lifelike ones. Your work might be subverting the idea of psychological realism, or playing with stock characters as a kind of sport. Your novel might be comedic or metaphysical. One size character-strategy doesn’t fit all.
But you can do worse than pay attention to being alive.
Using the senses.
Stealing characters is practically a time-honoured profession. Firstly there’s real life. These are the people we’re closest to: workmates; children; sweethearts. And haven’t we all based characters on ourselves?
Then there are tropes we can borrow or pinch. Holmes is a trope-character, because he’s been recreated and borrowed so many times.
However, there are rules to both borrowing and stealing. With borrowing you say to the reader: ‘Hey, look! This is a character you already know!’ Sherlock Holmes might be homosexual or aspergersy in your fiction, but you’re always displaying your library card.
Stealing is more underhanded. The idea is to change details and traits in order to make a known character less recognisable. There’s a continuum to this, of course. One one end — we’ll call this the ‘lazy’ or ‘slack stealing’ end — a writer changes a few basic details, a bit like giving a wanted man a false moustache and haircut. Anyone who looks closely can see the similiarity, but perhaps they won’t look. At the other end, practically everything except your core idea of the character’s personality is altered to suit your work. This can produce a revolution in characterisation. What do you factor in to create this new setting and set of ideas? What do you import from Sherlock and what do you jettison?
None of this is really stealing, of course. Arguably it’s just accessing a lineage of characterisations: Sherlock himself evolved out of an ancestry including Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But whether you import a trope-character blatantly or discreetly, it’s what you change and why that matters.
So steal away, if you wish! Just make sure you either spell out your homage — or camouflage it to the point where only you notice!
The main character of Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a wilting wallflower whose brief early romance was nipped in the bud. With nail-biting anguish Anne watches as her former lover becomes an eligible bachelor courted by all.
While Captain Wentworth’s deepest character remains elusive for much of the book, her own character is a superb mixture of unappreciated loyalty and constant desire to please. Thus she embodies constancy in the face of abandonment: rejected by a vain parent; loving but undemanding as a person; feeling the full weight of rejection in all aspects.
What makes her story so profoundly engaging is not only the complete tie-in between characterisation, plot and themes. It’s that somehow Austen manages to make Anne a real-seeming person, not a cypher. She represents thematic qualities even as she exists in her daily life and navigates its complexity. Thus the core of Anne’s characterisation — her endurance through neglect and heartache — gives the story its great depth and meaning, while the daily workings of her intelligence inside this fluctuating world make it seem true.
Persuasion, abandonment, constancy, suffering — and reversal.