Friday, October 14, 2011

Creating characters

One of the best parts of writing fiction is the freedom to create characters. In the case of historical fiction, certain restraints limit what an author can do. What is known about a person cannot be altered, I believe, but within the framework of what is known, there is still a lot of freedom to flesh out the person, to breathe life into her or him, to make them real. In my case, Joanna Vassa was a real person. Visiting her gravesite was a moving experience for me. Since I've been writing about her for about 5 years, she is real to me, but even characters I have made up have become real to me. Joanna lived. She married. She loved. She lost. She died. I hope, through inspiration and prayer, I am creating veracity as I imbue her with life on the pages of my book. As you read other works of historical fiction, think about what the author had to work with, and how they created a character, not out of nothing, but out of something.

Then there are the fully imagined, fictional characters. I have come to love and admire my main characters, but some of the minor characters, who were not even in my original outline, have really brought a smile to my face, and sometimes I laugh out loud as I'm writing their lines -- the novel is dialogue-heavy. Near the end of the book, you have to read almost to the end to find him, is Abner. He says what he thinks. There are no filters, no barriers, no judging whether something would be appropriate or not. Abner is a shoeless, illiterate 10-year-old boy, with freckles sprinkled across his face, a single mom, an abusive dad, and two little sisters. He says whatever he thinks. For instance, he asks Joanna "Why're ye brown?" Or, when asked about his pa, he tells Joanna his pa died, and adds, "He weren't such a nice person no'ow. He liked the drink."

Kids tell the truth. And then, at some point, they learn to think about what they're saying, and how it might affect others. They learn to dissemble, and they learn to lie. When they are small, and they ask out loud "why is that woman so fat?" we tend to try to shut them up. We want them to be honest, but not that honest! And then, much later in life, we tend to re-embrace that honesty kept to ourselves for most of our lives. Have you noticed how older folks feel the freedom to say what they want, and are not as cautious about how it will affect others? The best characters are so lifelike because they remind of us real people. That's the art, the challenge in creating characters.

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