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Nobody You Know: Snappy Answers To Awkward Questions About Characters

I’ve never acted like a stereotypical writer: I don’t chain smoke at my typewriter, have crazy hair, take long brooding glances out of my study window or start fights in literary cafes. But I may have to resort to fisticuffs if I have to keep answering silly questions about characters.

 It is vaguely insulting to assume that a writer’s fiction is confined to his/ her experiences. Did Agatha Christie write about murder by going out to commit a few? Did Ray Bradbury make any trips to Mars? Has JK Rowling ever run a school for wizards? Did Philip K Dick converse with sentient beams of pink light?  (Perhaps PKD is not the best example…)

 This assumption especially applies to the issue of character. “I don’t put people into my books”, Evelyn Waugh once wrote, “they *take* themselves out.” meaning that someone, somewhere may take a shine to your work and claim that character A/B/C resembles someone they know. Hence that useful disclaimer on the inner flap of your work, “any resemblance in this work to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

There are courses, manuals and dissertations on how to create characters, but I assure you, a writer does not sit in Starbucks all day with a sketchbook and pencils, transcribing other people’s conversation and sketching their likenesses. A story may shape the characters, not vice versa.

In short – a writer has no control over his/ her characters. In the initial planning stages, characters flit around like ghosts and if you’re lucky, they may relay to you some clues about the purpose of their existence. Nor does a writer have any control over the responses to the characters. In that respect, let me help you answer the following awkward questions:

1) Is Character X/Y/Z based on anybody you know?

Give me more credit! I don’t actively people my fictional worlds with people I already know. What a total mismatch. It would be like pasting newspaper clippings onto a fresco.

2) Is Character X/Y/Z based on anyone *I* know?

Print out and hold your Facebook friends list next to the character description and draw your own conclusions.

3) Did someone piss you off and you put them into nasty situations in your stories in order to get back at them, if only in an imaginary sense?

Wow, what a twisted question! (Writers of horror fiction are especially afflicted with this question.) All fiction is about pain and conflict. I have to make my characters suffer. If you want to read about hearts and flowers, then go buy a Hallmark card.

4) Is the protagonist based on yourself?

This question is why I’ve shied away from using first person in my published work. Or even worse, if the protagonist is a male : “Is the protagonist a male version of yourself?” I don’t conceive of male versions of myself unless I want a very specific type of cheap operation performed in Thailand.

5) Miss Lee, is male character X/Y/Z based on any of your exes?

Now its getting too personal. Stop your prying, my handheld bowel-disruptor is set to ‘Unspeakable Gut Horror’. Fiction is not a confession, and I’m not trying to get onto a shortlist by splattering my guts on the page.

6) Are the parental figures in your stories based on your own experience?

Hahah, a question that springs from the assumption that all writers must have had horrid childhoods. Some early history of trauma or tragedy, because artists seem to suffer for their work and if there is evident pain then the work is deemed ‘genuine’. The proliferation of all those child abuse memoirs lining the shelves these days only proves the commercial viability of this flawed thinking.

2 thoughts on “Nobody You Know: Snappy Answers To Awkward Questions About Characters”

  1. I had a teacher once who told me- write only what you know- well, how boring would that be? (Well, boring if I wrote it, as my life seems rather un-eventful…). You have the words, you have the imagination, use them! Or that’s what I say anyway…lol.

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