It’s Alive! It’s Alive!

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.

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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.

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For example, I wonder how many young people were influenced by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock to find careers in the space industry?

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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?

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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?

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Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. ~ E. L. Doctorow

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?

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“It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

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.

About Kate Loveton

Aspiring novelist. Avid reader of fiction. Reviewer of books. By day, my undercover identity is that of meek, mild-mannered legal assistant, Kate Loveton, working in the confines of a stuffy corporate law office; by night, however, I'm a super hero: Kate Loveton, Aspiring Novelist and Spinner of Tales. My favorite words are 'Once upon a time... ' Won't you join me on my journey as I attempt to turn a hobby into something more?
This entry was posted in My Writing Odyssey, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

188 Responses to It’s Alive! It’s Alive!

  1. Some really fantastic posts on this site, thanks for contribution. “Be absolutely determined to enjoy what you do.”
    by Sarah Knowles Bolton.

  2. sandradan1 says:

    I don’t think I will live long enough to write up all the ideas I have for novels and stories! Thanks for finding and liking my Spanish blog, have you found my writing blog too at http://www.sandradanby.com/
    SD

  3. julieehaynes says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your process. I am learning to let go and let the characters emerge. The process fascinates me. There is no high like it – watching them come into focus, bend and twist the story on their own. So cool! Best of luck on your novel!

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Julie, thanks for commenting. Liked your remark about the high of creating your own characters and watching them twist the story on their own. Thank you for the good wishes, too! πŸ™‚

  4. AC Macdonald says:

    There’s been many an awkward moment when I’ve been talking about a character to someone and they think I’ve been talking about a real person. They certainly do take on a life of their own and because of this my characters constantly surprise the heck out of me! πŸ™‚

    Great post. πŸ™‚

  5. I really enjoyed reading this! I’ve always thought that if you have good, well-thought out characters, the story almost writes itself.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Glad you enjoyed reading. Last week I was writing about a new character, then I ended up writing about the town she lived in, profiles for some of the people she interacts with… heck, I”m even thinking about writing a profile up for her dog! lol

  6. shunpwrites says:

    This powerful and it pulled some thought processes that I deeply imbedded, because I was scared to let them out to breath. I’ve made some forays into fiction but haven’t consummated them fully. In reading I see why, I was scared of them taking on a life of their own.

  7. Travis Long says:

    thanks for the insight into characters…where would george costanza fit on your list of characters? great, mediocre, balding?

  8. I liked this article, particularly because I just started a new novel and the characters are ones I know well since they were part of a previous one, yet I think I still need to write character analyses on them because they’ve grown and changed since the previous novel. Thanks for reminding me! (And thanks for following my blog, too.)

  9. helenjain21 says:

    Wow! You took the words out of my mouth! I started writing a novel with a fairly simple plot…and then my characters (particularly my main character) completely took over and suddenly I have five or six unexpected subplots. And sometimes, I wonder how exactly I got to the point I’m at, especially since I wasn’t planning for my character to end up there!

    Writing a novel is fun because you never know what might happen.

  10. lluks4 says:

    I actually took it a step further and found that my writing much improved when I stopped creating a plot and then characters to fit it, and instead created a cast of characters, figured out how they weave into a world, and then let the story grow organically from there–based entirely on what the characters would do at the starting point, then how they would react to what’s changed, and each other.

  11. I love this. I don’t actually consider myself much of a writer. I’m more of a performer. Allowing a character to take over is maybe even more scary when you’re actually allowing that character to inhabit your body. I’m pretty sure that is actually clinical schizophrenia. Maybe I let myself go through this because I want to find out who I really am, and the only way to do that is to create these other characters that can interact with me. Either way, I know I’m insane, writing insanity down does seem to help with it.

  12. Bree Salyer says:

    Sometimes, character is even more compelling than the writing itself. Take Mark Tufo for example. I am not saying his writing is bad in any way. However, there are things about it that could use some improvement. Yet, I was hooked from page one of Zombie Fallout because of the main character, Mike Talbott. He is so compelling, so… real, that Mark Tufo was able to literally develop a world of novels centered around him. Albeit you have to have a mind for zombies and otherworldly phenomenon for it to be down your alley, but my main point is that sometimes you can be an average writer but it is the character(s) you write that truly suck you in.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      That’s an interesting point of view. Now I’m intrigued about Mr. Tufo’s character. I’ve never read a zombie book before, but there’s a first time for everything. Zombie Fallout, huh? I’ll check it out.

  13. I’d have to agree with you. Characters (at least the good ones) have minds of their own.

  14. There are really a lot of challenges in creating a character. But after doing characterization and buildup, there is a fulfilling feeling that you’ve breathed a new life into an imaginary figure.

  15. RhB says:

    Yes, they run away from me… I have a god asking me to complete his story and a few dozen characters waiting for theirs. The problem is sometimes what I think the linear line of the story should be becomes convoluted…. I get the beginning and then the end…. Ten the middle is where it falls off. Then the end becomes disjointed. Them kids needs to learn discipline… Unfortunately, some of them are way older than me.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Your post made me grin. Ah, those wayward characters!

      • RhB says:

        I have caged a few of them. Someday, when this nefarious god I’m semi in love with finishes telling me his story I might let them out, but he is awfully insistent! The problem is because he is a god, he keeps wandering away into my poetry instead. And sometimes, he just shoves someone else in front of me. I feel like giving them numbers and saying “End of the line! No cutting! Next person! You cut, you start over!” It is just that he’s too adorable. I seem to have a soft spot for that god. What an awful thing…. Wait. Sorry, there are two characters glaring at me now. Ooops their three buddies joined them. Why couldn’t one of you be female? What? Oh you brought your female. Really? You like that kind of girl? Seriously? She’s a little bland for your personality don’t you think? Ooh, sorry. It seems someone is dragging me to go female shopping. Thanks for the response.

  16. Pingback: A Figment of My Immagination? | Wandering Gypsy Spirit

  17. zaramorrison says:

    Reblogged this on Everyone Wants to Be a Writer and commented:
    I encourage everyone who is in the process of creating characters to read this. It is one of the best descriptions of character creation that I have read.

  18. zaramorrison says:

    I absolutely adored this post. I have all of these characters bouncing around in my head as well. I had to change my entire plot because my secondary character (not even the main character!) became so strong that he demanded to be written differently than I had intended. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog this?

  19. Granite Jet says:

    Wow. I’ve never stopped to try to make the connection between the creation and dynamic characters. I often find that the act creating characters and their environments is more entertaining than writing what it all does.

  20. bevell486 says:

    I think my family actually believes they may have to have me committed someday, because I have such a compulsion to breathe life into the characters that reside in my head. (I try to talk to them about other things, honest!)

  21. Reblogged this on Wandering Gypsy Spirit and commented:
    I love this idea. I never thought about a character bible. I now have a direction to go with my own characters, letting them lead the way of course.

  22. tentninja says:

    I really enjoyed your blog. definitely inspired me to try writing fiction. I’ve always pondered over the idea but I do have a set of characters in mind that I think I should start profiling them. thank you, enjoyable read πŸ™‚ I’ll be sure to share it on twitter now.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Glad you feel inspired. I was experiencing that same sensation today in conversation with my writing partner. We all get by with a little ‘help’ from our friends when it comes to motivation. Look me up on twitter! I’ll be interested to see how you’re making out with your profiles. πŸ™‚

      • tentninja says:

        haha yeah definitely πŸ™‚ add me @tentninja I’ll be sure to keep you informed. can I ask, do you use friends as inspiration for characters? or do you build them from scratch?

        • Kate Loveton says:

          Yes, I do use friends for inspiration sometimes. I also use strangers I see while I’m standing in line at deli counters, in doctors’ offices, people I meet at work or social events. But I also build characters from scratch. This evening I worked up a character for a story I have in mind that doesn’t look, sound or act like anyone I know or can recall having met or observed.

        • tentninja says:

          yeaahhhh i have a lot of very interesting characters around me all the time due to my lifestyle so this should make for an interesting project for me πŸ™‚

        • tentninja says:

          thanks for the advice πŸ™‚

  23. MilesBear says:

    Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster, the movies have turned the pop culture use of it all wrong.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      You are quite correct to point that out. Frankenstein was the name of the doctor. I should have been clear, and I wasn’t. Good catch! It has become synonymous with the creature over the years in movies and musical references, but as you say, it was not the name of the monster.

  24. orwell1627 says:

    Very insightful post! I have always preferred a good character over a good plot.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      That’s an interesting remark. I think I may agree with you because I’m so character-driven. For example, the book that brought Dan Brown fame had an interesting plot, but I didn’t find the characters well-drawn or very interesting. For that reason, I didn’t particularly enjoy the book. I can think of one other writer of great success whose books are well-received, have intersting plots, but the characters seem (to me) cartoonish. For that reason, as much as I enjoy his books, his characters and even the books themselves don’t stay with me very long. Thanks for commenting. πŸ™‚

  25. farmstorytv says:

    Many times I’ve had to change the direction of a scene because a character simply refuses to go where I want him or her to go! They will always let you know. =) Good piece.

  26. revgerry says:

    Loved this piece. I have never successfully written anything fictional, my writing has been strictly nonfiction, whether personal or business; I guess I don’t know where to start. I like the idea you have given me of just creating characters and figuring out what motivates them. I like sites like “people of New York,: etc. You could pick out a person and work up a whole life story just as an exercise. Thanks.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Great idea! My writing partner and I often come up with “challenges” for writing exercises. One thing we are attempting in February is to write a story based on a person or persons in a photograph. We scoured the internet and looked at old photos (a lot of fun, by the way) and then agreed upon one photo. We each will now come up with a story based on the photo – a short piece, no more than 2,500 words. We’ll then share the stories with one another. We do this to challenge our imagination, but also to sharpen our ability to write compelling or convincing characters. Now you’ve given me another idea with your “people of New York” idea. Thank you!

  27. gunnarsewell says:

    Good character development is an essential ingredient of any good novel. The character development in the Brothers Karamazov is what makes it one of the best novels ever written.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      You know, I am ashamed to admit that while I’ve wanted to read it, “The Brothers Karamazov” is a book I haven’t yet gotten around to reading. I’ve heard the characterization is brilliant. Perhaps that will be one of my 2014 books. Thanks for your comment, which has also served as a gentle prod.

  28. nellie0224 says:

    Wow, I love this! Exactly here, I have the same thing. Sometimes one character sparks the idea of another – I own a journal full of ideas, character sketches and outlines, but I keep adding to them and sometimes even starting all over. However, I have to say that characters do not truly come to life until the story begins, at least, not in my experience. They live in my head, which helps me write a plot, but they are like artwork on my rough outlines. Once the story is begins, the character functions on their own accord.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      I think you’re right. Using Scarlett O’Hara (yet again) as an example, without the plot she is a sketch of a person’s traits, appearance, likes and dislikes, and so on. The story does indeed bring the character to life. Or perhaps it is an equal arrangement – both requiring the other. My own preference is both a strong plot and strong, memorable characters. Finally, as another poster commented earlier, the writer needs “the chops” to deliver both. That’s true. There are a lot of wanna-be Stephen Kings, for example, who write similar material. Yet their work isn’t as memorable or compelling. I suppose it’s a triad: the writer’s ability, strong characters, strong plot. And I think it is possible to fulfill some of the triad and yet not all. I think of Ken Follett. I think he writes well, and I like his plots. His characters, however, are not very compelling to me. I find them stereotypical rather than uniquely compelling. Yet I continue to read his books because I find he fulfills two parts of the triad. This, obviously, is just my take on the fabulously successful Mr. Follett. I’m almost hesitant to share these thoughts because Mr. Follett is a writer of some renown, and who am I? πŸ™‚

      • nellie0224 says:

        Agreed! While many writers simply follow in the footsteps of others, they lack originality and fail to empower their characters, or at least, this is from what I have read by far. One should put their heart and soul into a character, much like their own creation, and place them into a circumstance they know they will be able to withstand no matter what, because every book has a conclusion, whether it’s good or bad. We take examples from great writers – I find that Charles Dickens as my favorite classic author, whips up beautiful characters, and brilliant plots, even though the genre is often similar. Something about the way he writes is what makes you love his work. I hope that in our writings, we shall create memorable characters (at least, I really want to have my OC remembered forever, much like a Hamlet-style scenario).

        • Kate Loveton says:

          What great comments! I couldn’t agree more about Dickens – his characters are very vivid. He is one of my favorite authors. Thanks for stopping by and leaving such interesting remarks.

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