I often get asked “Where do you get your characters from?” “Was he based on a real person?” “Does she really exist?” “Is this character based on you?”
I guess what I am really being asked is not where I retrieved and/or created the characters in my stories, but where the questioner can find their own characters…
Now we can analyse what makes a character seem so alive, so special, larger than life, real, but would that analysis lead to a believable character?
I remember studying poetry at school, taking each line, each shot of silence and cutting it into finer and finer bits and ultimately it was all rather arbitrary and somehow pointless. Did we create a new living thing out of cutting a poem into pieces? I think not.
So where do characters come from? Well, the same place dreams come from, the same place our stories come from. Us. All of us. As for freeing them from the bounds of our imagination and releasing them on to the page so that they are worthy of reading, now that’s something totally different…
Let me tell you about one way that I get to know my characters: I invite them to tea.
Yes, sounds strange, I know. I actually imagine what it would be like to have them join me for a hot cup of chaa. It produces a real visceral sense of how well you know some one by the way they sit down, look around, look at you, sip their tea, in slow sips or sharp burning intakes of breath.
I invite them to dinner with a group of friends (in my head of course), friends whom I know really well and I imagine how the character would react. Will they be talkative? Will they be seething and silent? Will they glare at the walls? Will they be curious, flirtatious? What?
Once a character is ‘real’ in my head I can pretty much invite them anywhere. It’s like having an imaginary friend all of my own.
I find this little exercise of the imagination sets the mind free to push the boundaries in terms of the reality that revolves around a character and how the character in turn nudges reality back. When a character becomes that real to you it does not matter where they go, whether it is in a poem or a short story or a novella or a novel or a script or a screenplay…they are so real that they can walk and run anywhere they please. You can guess exactly what they are going to say and and do.
That is when a character is no longer a character. They are a living breathing human being, one composed of words, but real as the people who inhabit our imagination. Funny thing is that long after you and I have gone, those words will still be around. It is odd how something which was once lifeless can become immortal.