One of my new writing students, a gent we shall call Wally, came by my office the other day with the first pages of a new story. I read the pages and then handed them back to him.
"Wally", I complained as gently as I could, "these characters are really not very interesting. "
Wally frowned, not understanding.
I tried again: "Wally, these characters are dull. What they are is flat and insipid. They are pasteboard. They have no life, no color, no vivacity. They need a lot of work. "
Wally looked shocked. "How can these characters be dull? They're realpeople-every one of them! I took them right out of real life!" "Oh", I said. "So that's the problem. " "What?" he said.
"You can never use real people in your story. " "Why?"
"For one reason, real people might sue you. But far more to the point in fiction copy, real people - taken straight over and put on the page of a story-are dull. " Wally sat up straighter. "Are you telling me my friends are dull?"
"Of course not!" I told him. "That's not the point. The point is that in fiction real people aren't vivid enough. Good characters have to be constructed, not copied from actuality. " Wally was discouraged. But I tried to explain it to him with something like this: One of the toughest jobs we ask of our readers is to see characters vividly and sympathize with them. Consider: all your readers have to go by are some symbols printed on a sheet of paper. From these symbols, readers must recognize letters of the alphabet, make the letters into words, derive meaning from the words, link the meanings into sentences. From that point, readers must make an even more amazing leap of faith or intuition of some kind: they must use their own imagination to picture - physically and emotionally-a person inside their own head. And then they must believe this imagined person is somehow real-and even care about him.
Readers need all the help they can get to perform this arduous imaginative-emotional task. They have a lot to see through to get the job done even imperfectly.
To help them, you can't simply transcribe what you see and know about a real person. You have to construct something that is far bigger than life, far more exaggerated. Then, if you do your job of exaggeration extremely well, your readers will see your gross exaggeration dimly, but well enough to think, "This constructed character looks like a real person to me. "
Good fiction characters, in other words, are never, ever real people. Your idea for a character may begin with a real person, but to make him vivid enough for your readers to believe in him, you have to exaggerate tremendously; you have to provide shortcut identifying characteristics that stick out all over him, you have to make him practically a monster-for readers to see even his dimmest outlines.
Thus, even if you start with some real person, you won't end up with him as your character.
For example, if your real person is loyal, you will make your character tremendously, almost unbelievably loyal; if he tends to be a bit impatient in real life, your character will fidget, gnash his teeth, drum his fingers, interrupt others, twitch, and practically blow sky high with his outlandishly exaggerated impatience. In addition, you may find that it helps your creation if you take one or two other real-life people and add their most exaggerated impatient characteristics.
What you will end up with, if you do well, will be a dimly perceived construct who no longer bears any resemblance to the real person with whom you started. Because good characters are in no way like real people ... not really.
In addition, to create a fictional character, you will give him some highly recognizable tags that are - again - more exaggerated than anything we'll ever encounter in real life. Thus our impatient character will also be nervous. He'll smoke, a lot. He'll always be lighting a cigarette, asking for a match, putting out a cigarette, puffing smoke. His habit of drumming his fingers on the table will be shown often, as another tag of impatience and nervousness. He'll interrupt people and be rude -push past others to get into the elevator, give snappish answers to questions, honk his horn at the driver in front of him the instant the light turns green, and so on. And all these tags that you devise will be waved often, not just occasionally, as they might appear in real life.
Good fiction characters also tend to be more understandable than real-life people. They do the things they do for motives that make more sense than real-life motives often do. While they're more mercurial and colorful, they're also more goal-motivated. Readers must be able to understand why your character does what he does; they may not agree with his motives, but you have carefully set things up so at least they can see that he's acting as he is for some good reason.
In all these ways fiction characters are not just different than life. They're better. Bigger. Brighter. More understandable. Nicer or meaner. Prettier or uglier. And ultimately more fascinating.
I can almost hear your silent protest: "But I want to write realistic fiction. " Good. So do I. Yet, to convey an illusion of realism, you as a good fiction writer can never transcribe real people; you must build your characters, taking aspects of real people and exaggerating some angles while suppressing others, adding a bit of Charlie's choleric nature to Archibald's pathos, tossing in some of Andrew's brittle way of talking, salting with your own list of tags that you made up from your imagination, sticking on the motives, plans, hopes and fears that you made up as the author for this character because they're what you as the author need to have in this particular story.
Even the names of your characters are constructed. "Brick Bradley" by his very name is a different character from "Percy Flower" "Mother Theresa" can never be the same kind of person as a "Dolores LaRue" Even your character names are constructs, not reality.
And consider character background. In real life, a young woman may come out of a poverty-stricken rural background and still somehow become the president of a great university. Except in a long novel, where you might have sufficient space to make it believable, you would have a hard time selling this meshing of background and present reality in fiction. Chances are that in a short story you would make up a far different background for your female university president, perhaps constructing an early life as the favorite or only daughter of a college professor mother and physician father. (In short fiction, characters and their backgrounds are almost always much more consistent than people in real life)
Motivation? Again, fictional characters are better than life. In real life, people often seem to do things for no reason we can understand. They act on impulses that grow out of things in their personalities that even they sometimes don't understand. But in fiction there is considerably less random chance. While good characters are capable of surprising readers-and should sometimes do so for verisimilitude-such characters are always understandable on fairly simple later analysis.
To put this point another way, in real life people often don't make sense. But in fiction, they do.
The author sees to that.
Just as she sees to many other things about her characters, remembering always that fiction people are not real people.
It's just one of several ways that fiction surpasses and improves upon life. And that's a good thing, isn't it? After all, if fiction were really just like life, why would we have to have it at all? What need would it meet? Who would care about it?
We spin tales... make up story people. None of it is real, and therein lies its beauty. In your stories, as in all the stories ever told, you must hold the magnifying glass up to your people and events for readers to appreciate them at all... and thus briefly enter a private world, largely of their own \ma%\vim%-made vivid by your crafty help.
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