I can think of few things more exciting or empowering than creating your own virtual universe out of the “furniture” inside your head. Writing stories, breathing life into your characters, well… it’s rather like giving birth to a new creation.
Whenever I create a character, an image from one of the old Frankenstein movies comes to mind: the mad scientist looking at the beast he’s created and screaming maniacally, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
That’s how I feel when I’ve done my best by a character – I’ve given him life.
Have you ever considered how many fictional characters continue to live on in the minds of readers, influencing “real” life? I think a good character can be considered a living thing, a dynamic force that can change the way we think, the way we interact with one another, perhaps even the way we dream.
How many idealistic young men and women decided to pursue a career in law after reading about Atticus Finch (“To Kill a Mockingbird”)? Perhaps the idea of one man taking a stand for color-blind justice was the thing that ignited their imaginations and fueled a commitment toward social equality.
Dynamic characters stay with us long after we’ve closed a book. The character of Holden Caulfield (“Catcher in the Rye”) resonated with a generation of youth as a symbol of disaffection and teen rebellion. That wretched monster, Frankenstein, both terrorized us and made us weep for his misery, and the character is emblematic even today of cold, dispassionate science run amok. Conan Arthur Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, after more than a century, continues to fascinate us with his personal habits and uncanny, cocaine-addicted mind.
And can anyone ever forget the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara and her famous coping mechanism for adversity?
There are so many examples in literature of characters who refuse to be bound between the covers of a book. No, they leap off the page and into our hearts and minds, where they continue to live on and influence us.
Sometimes I think that creating characters and imbuing them with life is about as close as a person can get to being god-like.
One might consider that even God’s characters, once He breathed life into them, got away from Him. He allowed His wayward characters to re-write His original story. Consider Adam and Eve. Their story was to stay in the Garden, innocent, content, happy. Instead, Eve gets the desire for what she’s not supposed to have (how many stories through the ages have begun that way?), succumbs to temptation and with her hapless husband is vanquished from the Garden.
Once you breathe life into a character, he or she may throw you a curveball. You have it all planned out, have set up a little “garden” in which you place them to act out their story… but next thing you know, they’ve done something that has completely astonished you.
Characters – good ones – are just like people: you can’t always anticipate what they may do next.
I have a key idea in mind for a story, but I’m not yet certain how to get from “here” to “there” in terms of the plot and several other elements. I’m depending upon my characters to help me.
This weekend I wrote a 1,200 word sketch of the story’s main character. It’s the tip of the iceberg, really, but I wanted to leave room to fill in more details as I move forward with the story and the creation of other characters who are destined to interact with him.
I see him very clearly in my head. I hear his voice, the timbre of it. I know what sort of man he is, what motivates him, moves him, horrifies him. I’ve given him a tragedy from which the events in the book will spring. I’ve fleshed out his family’s background because it defines the man he is at the time my story opens. I’ve decided he is at his core a good man… without that inherent goodness, he will not be able to fulfill the needs of the story.
As I was working on his profile, a few other characters began to take form in my mind.
I’m attracted to the idea of maintaining a “Character Bible.” I want to spend a lot of time on my characters, figuring out what makes them tick, what their fears are, what propels them forward or holds them back. My intention is to add the details that will make my people compelling, interesting, likable or maybe not. I want them to be as fully realized as I’m capable of making them. I don’t want them to live only in my head; I want them to live in the minds and hearts of my future readers.
I have a feeling that my characters may eventually take up the story themselves, and perhaps change the direction from what I originally conceived. Dynamic characters can do that, don’t you think? Change the flow of a story?
This all sounds rather schizophrenic, doesn’t it?
But writers manage to exist quite amicably with the multitude of voices in our heads. We realize that each is longing to tell his or her own story. Each wants his chance to “live.”
What about you? I’m curious how many of you keep a source book, what I’ve referred to as a Character Bible, to keep track of all those voices that you hear. And I also wonder if you’ve found yourself experiencing a change in the direction of your story as your characters take over? Does the behavior of your characters sometimes surprise you, behaving in ways you hadn’t originally intended?
If so, I’d say you’ve created dynamic characters, living and changing within the “universe” you’ve provided them.
Except for God, who has the powers of a writer? That ability to create, to change lives and situations, manipulate environment, touch the heart of another human being? To give life?
Now, if you’ll excuse me… I’ve got some voices that are calling to me; you see, they want their chance to live, just like you and me.