Monday, January 09, 2012

Real People Are Better than Characters

Cute dog isn't it?

I love dogs- we have five of them.  But none of them ride in fire engine trucks and look that clean.  They fight.  They trash the house if we're gone too long.  They don't get along with the cats.  You get the picture.

Fact is, he little guy in the picture is a fake.  Just like a lot of characters.

Stereotypes are okay as a kind of short-hand for throw-away characters.  They're easy to write and and easy to source. You can almost buy them online.  The evil business person.  The average person fighting against the system.  Or my all-time favorite.  The  "elements re-assembled"  character.

The stereotyped character draws from a list of prearranged character attributes which you can actually find in the various books that Writers Digest sells.  The idea is that it's hard work to create an original character.  A writer would actually have to think and everything.  And you might fail.  The emotional trauma of failure might be painful.  The stereotyped character relieves you of that burden.

The "elements-assembled" character is a Mix-Match creation.  To hide the fact that our characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, we take the character "parts" and arrange them in unconventional ways.
With luck, the patchwork characters will be considered original.  This applies to character mannerisms as well.  For example, instead of having a tobacco-chewing man (ugh) we write a tobacco-chewing woman (ugh) character.  Isn't that creative?  Isn't that original?

Or, instead of having a powerful, evil businessman, we create a powerful, evil businesswoman.

Who knew that creativity was so easy?!  Switch gender roles or switch personal habits and we instantly have an original character!

On the other hand, this might explain why more readers are reading less.  They know that writers don't actually study real people anymore, they study fictional characters.  They base their law enforcement characters on characters they've seen on CSI.  Or Law and Order.  Or.... you get the point.

After all, "Avatar" made millions and millions of dollars for its creators, and there isn't one character in the entire movie that's not a stereotype or recycled character.  So why should a writer study real people?  Why try to really analyze the human condition and potential to create characters that are more compelling?

Think of it this way- movie studios and TV production groups have an awful lot more to invest in their stories.  It's your mind against their computer animated graphics and music scores.  Ever notice how much they spend on music scores for movies?  It's because the music creates most of the mood, not the script.  Their writers can't pull it off without music and sound effects. 

Fiction writers don't have a choice.  We actually have to make it happen in the reader's mind without music, without special effects, and without actors.  Movie studios have hundreds of millions of dollars invested.  Fiction writers, if we're lucky, have a decent laptop.

So we have to work a lot harder to make our readers really believe that our characters are real.  We might actually have to pay attention to real people to learn how to make believable characters.

Or we could keep on turning out two dimensional characters like the dog in the picture.


Charles Gramlich said...

Great point. It's hard to create such characters, but hugely rewarding when you succeed, and pretty depressing when you don't.

Rick said...

Worth the risk, though. You've created some pretty memorable characters in your time.

David Cranmer said...

".. pay attention to real people." That's the key. Great post, Rick.

Indigo said...

I've always believed reality is stranger than fiction. I think if our characters are written well enough, we can get away with a few unusual quirks and get our readers to extend believability (which is never as easy as it sounds).

Me? I like to highlight reality in such a way, most wouldn't think to stop and notice. (Hugs)Indigo

Rick said...

Hi David- My favorite place to learn about real people is when I'm out pitching in for a project with other people, or traveling or helping somebody out. Or being attacked or having someone scream at me.

You seem like you know it well that we have to meet people in ways that are sometimes great and sometimes ugly to see the range of human personality.

That's why, whenever I have more freedom in my life, I'm going out Bigfoot hunting again. Or treasure hunting. You meet the most intriguing people when you're trying to find lost treasure.

Rick said...

Hi Indigo,

You are so very right. The tension that can be developed between dramatic moments set in a context more powerful by the lack of attention drawn to it can border on the unbearable. James Lee Burke is a master of that technique, and it is one I would dearly love to learn. So I need to read more of your work!

Yes, and reality is less predictable, too. A writer friend asked me what kind of fiction I was looking for at White Cat Magazine (my online web magazine). More and more, I think I'm interested in fiction by writers who go out and tussle with the world instead of sitting in writing workshops.

Don't laugh, but when I was a kid four of us went out walking through the woods (what today they call wetlands) and finally made it to a set of railroad tracks that we thought would lead us home. One kid said his dad told him that if he ever got lost, he could just lay his head on the railroad tracks and he'd hear everything for miles around. So if he kept his head there long enough, he could hear the voices of the people in his neighborhood and follow their voices home.

Okay, so maybe he didn't like his son.

But one of us had to take the challenge and lay our heads down on the railway track and listen for home. We were all terrified but acted like it was no big deal.

I made it worse when I said I'd heard that if you put your head on the railway tracks,it was a scientific fact that you couldn't hear the approach of an approaching train. They all believed me. That ratcheted up the stakes. One of us had to die so the others could make it home.

Really happened.

So many characters flowed from that moment in time where my friends and I cowered between bravery and fear that I feel any writer of any age needs to step out and grab hold of real life, if only for the sake of his writing.

ds said...

You are absolutely right. Thank you for this post, and for your visit.

Aimless Writer said...

I think half my character is from real life and the other half from the reaction I think I should see when I torture them. Sometimes I worry that someone will think they see themselves in my stories.
I think when a character clicks it's an awesome feeling of accomplishment.

Rick said...

DS- I love your avator. It looks like you bought Ernest Hemingway's typewriter at auction!

Rick said...

Aimless, that kind of stuff bothers me, too. You ever wonder if some demented reader is going to put your book down muttering, "I know this writer was using my life and I'm going to make them pay."

So let them write a book about us and pay us royalties! Why should we do all the work?

BernardL said...

You nailed it, Rick.

G said...

Always loved studying and using real people in my stories.

Had lots of success and have gotten into a bit of trouble using real people. :D

Rick said...

I really liked your train story, Bernard. Nice.

Rick said...

You are a kindred spirit, G.

Travis Cody said...

And it's not just about observing, is it? You do have to observe real people in real situations, but you also have to think about how to turn those behaviors you've observed into an original, believable character on the page.

Tough work. But as Charles said, very rewarding when you get it right.

mafarivar said...

As a psychiatrist I can at least say that certain traits go together, especially when it comes to socially deviant behavior.. I read a book by a great psychiatrist once who wrote to always listen to the emotional tone in what a person says and it will guide you to what is important to them and what they value. He called it the "Limbic Music" naming it after the limbic system which is where emotions are generated. There is no thought with an emotional connection..imagine that. I've given much thought to creating realistic characters, that are not stereotypes (they're tempting to the lazy side of me..), since I've spent so much time trying to understand people. I would imagine that any writer would find a treasure trove in the books published on "ego psychology", "psychodynamic psychiatry" and one of my current favorites-"the mask of sanity"...I think there's enough there for everyone. This was an excellent post Rick. Thank you.

mafarivar said...

Correct my typo. "There is no thought without an emotional connection" Sorry...