Saturday, October 25, 2014

Unique and Universal: Part 4

This will be my last post on this topic . . . for the time being. As I have stated previously, this is one of those topics I suspect I will keep coming back to over and over again.

Today I want to discuss the fourth method of characterization that I use. This series is specifically talking about creating characters by putting myself into my work, and I have already discussed three different methods by which I do this. This method may not seem to fit that theme at first . . . but stay with me! It will make sense when I'm through.

I 'll call this the What I See In Someone method. This is the method in which I take traits and struggles I observe in other people--specifically those close to me--and use them to create a character.

This is a method more commonly used by writers hither and yon. Lots of novelists will set out to base a character on someone they know. But my reasoning for why it works may be a bit different.

You say, "Well if you're basing your character on someone else, how can you claim to be putting yourself into your characters?"

Simple! You see, when I base a character on someone I know, I am still basing that character on my perspective on someone I know. Which is ultimately still me. I can't know the entirety of a person's heart or struggles. I have only my outsider's perspective to go on and whatever I can extrapolate from there. In the case of novel writing, the extrapolation itself forms the character--though, if I am as honest as I can be, the character will become quite a strong reflection of the original.

The heroine of the upcoming Golden Daughter is a great example of this sort of characterization. She is heavily influenced by my perspective on my best friend. Her struggles, her personality, her sins, her fears, her strengths . . . so many things about Sairu are things I have watched and observed in Erin over the years. Is she perfect fit for Erin? No. But she's an excellent reflection.

Erin herself read a polished draft of the manuscript a few months ago and agreed with me--Sairu is very much her. Not exactly her, but very much her. And she was pleased by the similarities, for it enabled her to see herself in a more favorable light. To see things she thought of as weakness used to create a dynamic and singularly heroic character. Sairu is, without a doubt, the most exciting heroine I have ever written. She is also, quite possibly, the most damaged (though it takes an insightful reader to see this). But because of her damage, she has the potential to become so much bigger, so much larger than life.

I won't go into specifics both for the sake of avoiding spoilers and for the sake of my best friend's privacy. But all this to say, basing a character on someone you know takes just as much honesty as basing a character on yourself. More than that, it takes an ENORMOUS amount of empathy--the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone else.

In the case of Sairu and my best friend, it was a fairly easy journey. Almost an unconscious one, really! I was probably 1/3 of the way into writing a manuscript before I realized how very much Sairu was like Erin. At that point I was able to be a little more conscious in my efforts, drawing on my longstanding history with Erin to create a mingling of vulnerability, humor, strength, protectiveness, and fear that make Erin herself such a larger-than-life person.

But I have used this technique for other characters in the past.

Lionheart was very much based on my perspective on a young man who hurt my heart years ago. Not on him exactly--merely my perspective on him. But putting that character, someone I resented so deeply, into my book forced me to step into a position of empathy--both for the real-life person and for Lionheart himself. I started with what I knew, stood a while in that other person's shoes, and extrapolated from there as honestly as I could.

And suddenly Lionheart wasn't merely the weak-willed villain of Heartless. He was someone I wanted to write more about, to learn more about. Someone to whom I found I related. So I began to blend methods together, maintaining the personality and character traits of the real-life young man, but adding in aspects of myself.

Because a universal character is just that--a universal. Someone to whom many people can relate. Make sense?

Daylily is another character who started out based on someone I knew. Someone I didn't really like. Someone I wanted to better understand. So I started with my perspective on someone else, moved into that position of empathy, and found where Daylily and I were alike. And so she became someone far more multidimensional than I ever would have expected. She became someone I wanted to write more about. Thus Shadow Hand was born.

Anyway, that's about all I have to say on that topic. Quite a long-winded response to the two part question: "Do you put yourself into your characters?" and "How do you create such diverse characters?"

I've said it before and I'll say it again--Good writing is about honesty. It's difficult to grasp this truth, more difficult still to put it into practice. But I hope this series has given you some food for thought along the way.


Hannah said...

Sairu is based off of Erin!!! That is so cool!!! I can already see the similarity of their humor. ;)

Thank you for these posts, Anne Elisabeth!

Nightingale said...

This series was so interesting. Thank-you for sharing some of your process with us! I've often admired and wondered at your ability to write characters that feel so very REAL.

Definitely food for thought. :)

Merenwen Inglorion said...

Thank you so much for these posts! I mean, it's something I "know," but these posts give me a totally different view of that. And they helped me pinpoint what I've been missing in my writing!!
(Empathy; I've been picking cherries but not biting them open, kind of a thing. If that made any sense to anyone...)

Thanks for pouring yourself into your work. :)
Am more eager than ever to get to Golden Daughter! (Dragonwitch should be on its way sometime in the near future :D :D.)

Thanks again and God bless,

ghost ryter said...

These posts have been so fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

Kira Thomas said...

I was going to go through and comment on all of these posts, but I realized I could sum it all up in one sentence.

Anne Elisabeth, you're my hero.

Thank you so very much for this series of posts. These were exactly what I needed right now.

Unknown said...

Anne Elisabeth, I think that it is so amazing that you took people that hurt you and you really didn't like and at once used them to influence characters in your stories and empathize with them. After reading this post, I am even more excited - if possible- to read Golden Daughter now! I can hardly wait until it comes out!

Regarding the method, I'm sure that it is going to be very helpful to me. Thank you very much for this series, Anne Elisabeth!

Unknown said...

I love these posts!!

Anonymous said...

These posts have been a very worthwhile read and I shall remember them. I really like Leo, that might have something to do with the fact that I got to know him in Veiled Rose before I learned his faults.

Sarah Bailey said...

The thought of exploring people you don't like through characters is so interesting! I admit, I've never really liked Lionheart, especially after what he did to Una. I had a hard time understanding why you went ahead and explored him more after Heartless. After reading this article, though, I think I can empathize with him more.

If you're interested, I wrote an article that's kind of in response to this Unique and Universal series you did. You can find it at my blog: Defining Character.

Meredith said...

This series of posts was so very enlightening. Once again, I'm so appreciative of your honesty. Writing is indeed an art of exploration. I've dealt with bullying in my past, and my Beauty and the Beast retelling addresses this in a roundabout way. I actually had a chance to revisit that very painful aspect of my life, and one of my characters is based off the perpetrator. Over the years, I learned more about this person's circumstances and came to a better understanding of how, in our own way, we are all bullies if given the opportunity. So, although writing about this aspect of my past was very painful, it was also eye-opening.

I am so eager to meet Siru! How wonderful that you based her character on your best friend.