Another Human Being On The Page

“The novelist’s job is to see and say clearly what people are.” John Masters

Do you ever get stuck while creating your characters? Some seem to be dull, others cliché and you spend endless hours thinking how to make them better or rather believable. Even though you are aware of all types of characters that your teachers and writing instructors and coaches have talked about. The flat versus the round;

“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.” E.M. Forster

The cardboard, either too good, too bad, or too predictable, that remains the same throughout the book. Versus the real, that changes, however slightly, as a result of his experiences.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created – nothing.”

When it comes to creating our characters we beginning writers are bound to err. Professionals in the field of writing all say that the characters make the story. And they also advise us novices to write about what we know. But if we base our fictional characters on people we’ve met or know, won’t we be restricting ourselves in terms of what to expect from these characters? As to what these characters are capable of doing?

“Take a good handful of human life,” Goethe advised, “Though all men live it, few there be that know it.”

Do we really know someone? Do we know what his/her secrets are? His/her passions? His/her dreams? Or how will you, the writer, make your readers like or dislike these characters the way you do? They also tell you that the best way to create character is to invent the whole person and base his actions on real life situations you yourself have faced and have full knowledge of. You experiment with different people and situations until you come up with a ‘larger than life’ character, a character that becomes so real he refuses to do what you have planned for him. Perhaps the best advice on how to create a real life character with a will of his own can be found in Eudora Welty’s words:

“The characters who go to make up my stories and novels are not portraits. Characters I invent along with the story that carries them. Attached to them are what I’ve borrowed, perhaps unconsciously, bit by bit, of persons I have seen or noticed or remembered in the flesh – a cast of countenance here, a manner of walking there, that jump to the visualizing mind when a story is underway. I don’t write by invasion into the life of a real person; my own sense of privacy is too strong for that; and I also know instinctively that living people to whom you are close – those known to you in ways too deep, too overflowing, ever to be plumed outside love – do not yield to, could never fit into, the demands of a story. On the other hand what I do make my stories out of is the whole fund of my feelings, my responses to the real experiences of my own life, to the relationships that formed and changed it, that I have given most of myself to, and so learned my way toward a dramatic counterpart. Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.”


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