Where the Personalities Grow

First the good news…  A gallery is now up featuring submissions for the SF/F cover art contest for which I’m sponsoring one of the prizes.  Take a look at www.sffcontest.com and click on the big “View Our Submissions” button.   Remember, the contest is for amateurs and there’s still plenty of time to submit a piece.  If you’re interested in why a writer would get involved with an art contest, there’s a bit about that on the site, too.  Or you can read my WW for 1-29-14 for a slightly different take on the topic.

Many Personalities.  One Writer.

Many Personalities. One Writer.

Life continues throwing curve balls to smash my dreams of writerly peace.  Late last week, the water line to my house broke.  Happily, some excellent plumbers made certain we continued to have water and, as of early this week, we have a new high-tech water line.

Last week’s WW about designing aliens generated some interesting comments, both on the site and off.  One of the “ghosts” found herself thinking about a type of alien closer to home: those creatures we call humans.  She wondered whether the personality of the writer makes a big difference in how the writer expresses the personalities of different characters.  She also wondered how, if it did, the writer could learn work beyond such limitations.

I think that writers’ personalities do influence how writers develop their characters.  Initially, in fact, how the characters process situations is likely to be similar to how the writer would do so.  If the writer is introspective, then the character is likely to be so.  If the character is impulsive or temperamental, ditto.  Nor is this always a bad thing.  There’s a certain “rightness” about such characters.  Moreover, there is a type of reader who seems to want to believe that, even when reading fiction, they are actually reading thinly shrouded autobiography.  Nothing seems to excite this sort of reader more than finding out that a writer “really” plays the bagpipes or is an expert on wines or practices a particular martial art, just like the protagonist does.

If I’m writing a story with an ensemble cast, my characters tend to discuss events.  I don’t doubt that this is because that’s what I would do in a similar situation.  However, I also write this way because I think it’s a lot more interesting for the reader to be part of a discussion than to be told by an abstract narrative voice: “After much discussion, the characters decided to raid the lair of the Bat King.”  Especially if there had been some disagreement as to the wisdom of confronting this awesome monster, as a reader, I’d like to know why they made that choice.

To this day, for example, the council scene in The Fellowship of the Ring is one of my favorite parts of the novel.  Not only do we find out why a certain course of action was chosen, we learn a lot about how various characters reacted to the decision to attempt to destroy the One Ring.  Do I like this scene because Tolkien wrote it well or because it resonates with my sense of what’s right?  Good question.

For a writer to grow, the writer must eventually move outside of his or her own narrow frame of reference.  As much as we’d like to believe so, everyone is not like us.  Different people react to different situations, well, differently.

This was brought home to me afresh some years ago when I ended up being the nexus of a rather nasty situation.  I was extremely frustrated because none of those involved were sitting down and talking as a group.  Instead, people were phoning each other or, occasionally, e-mailing each other.   As a nexus, I heard a lot of different points of view and, eventually – because it was physically impossible to get everyone into one place –  I composed an e-mail outlining the situation as I saw it, placing the blame for starting the problem firmly where it belonged.

I thought clarifying the situation would enable matters to be reset and we could all get back to work.  Thank heavens I ran my proposed e-mail by a close friend who was also involved in the situation.  Her response was to say calmly, “And what do you think this will do?  Do you expect them to say, ‘Right, we’ve behaved badly.  Sorry.’”

I admitted that this was precisely what I expected…  After all, I’d outlined the facts neatly and the facts pretty neatly showed how the situation had developed.  In the background I came from, this would have at the very least led to an admission of how the misunderstanding had developed and a chance to start the discussion afresh and maybe repair the damage.  My friend said, “Jane, that’s because you come from a family of lawyers.  Not everyone accepts such discussion in that way.  You’re more likely to make everyone defensive and things will get worse.”

What an eye opener!  What a view into a different mindset!  What a great thing for a writer!

The e-mail was never sent but, to this day, when writing characters I remind myself to delve into personalities and insecurities, to play with how in certain social situations such illogical things as having been an insecure wallflower in tenth grade might make a currently competent business executive behave like a junior high school student.

So, short of cultivating conflict and studying reactions, how can a writer expand his or her psyche to embrace personalities other than his or her own?

One way is to make a study of the people close to you and try to understand not only how but why they react as they do to certain situations.  Agatha Christie’s autobiography is far from being (as are the autobiographies of so many writers) a thinly disguised, “How I Became the Famous Writer I am Today.”  In fact, page for page, she talks very little about her writing, and, when she does, it’s almost always in the context of some other aspect of her life.

However, for a reader who has read a considerable amount of Agatha Christie’s work, her autobiography holds revelations as to how and why she kept returning to certain types of people in her writing.  The attractive ne’er do well owes a great deal to her brother.  Her abiding interest in older people was clearly influenced by the two elderly aunts who lived with her family.  Her ex-husband, Archie, may be the reason she writes betrayers so well.  Her father provides the affectionate template for characters who cannot adjust to the times.  And, of course, her deep understanding of the archeologist comes from her second husband, Max Mallowan.

However, Dame Agatha did not merely recycle her life into story-shaped jigsaw puzzles.  She made the effort to understand these people (and many others), to learn what motivated them, and then to use that to create rich suites of characters whose interactions – no matter how superficially illogical – become logical when you get into their heads.

Some writers make the jump from their own point of view more easily than do others.  Those who are fascinated by the other, the alien, the stranger – whatever term you choose to give it – are more likely to start this exploration earlier but, for a writer to grow, I believe that he or she must eventually develop, as did Kipling’s Kim, two (or more) sides to their head.

There’s more to it, but I’ll stop here so you folks can get a word in!

14 Responses to “Where the Personalities Grow”

  1. Peter Says:

    Fascinating stuff, as always. I’m not a writer, but as a long-time gamer the discussion of character personality always interests me. In addition to drawing on people I know in person I’ve always tried to draw on those I only know at a remove, both real people (such as one find in books) and fictitious ones (those one reads about in the news).

    And now I’m really looking forward to AA so I can see how the epic assault on the castle of the King of Bats plays out…

    • janelindskold Says:

      As I’ve mentioned, I’m a gamer, too. My favorite system for character development is GURPS, not only because it’s skill based but because of the thoughtful handling of Advantages and Disadvantages.

      The Bat King is actually a recurring motif in the game I’m currently running — Hostages in the Court of the Faceless Tyrant — so you won’t find him in _Artemis Awakening_, but you will find some very interesting people!

      • Peter Says:

        I wasn’t actually expecting the Bat King in AA 😉 [Insert Monty Python joke HERE].

        Personally I’ve always been more of a Hero fan than a GURPS fan, although I’ve played my share of the latter (hard to avoid when one’s GM writes sourcebooks for SJG…). One of our more interesting – if short-lived – experiments actually came out of a playtest for a chapter our GM was working on for a pitch on “using the GURPS rules to create yourself” (inspired by games like Fringeworthy and Timeship). With the little twist that after we’d all created character sheets for ourselves the GM shuffled them up and distributed them randomly around the table, so we were all playing each other.

        Hilarity ensued, as you might expect.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Yes, The Council of Elrond is often the only part of Fellowship I reread when I pick it up. By the same toke, where others complain endlessly about David Weber’s infodumps, they’re a major reason why I read his books [no surprise to those who read my replies here, I’m sure]

    Oh, yes: ” finding out that a writer “really” … practices a particular _marital_ art, just like the protagonist does. Do tell! I gather yours is Cooking?

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    I can’t remember which author it was, but in a “how to write” book, the author said that his version of the old “all characters in this book are fictional….” boilerplate in the front of novels ended with the sentence. “And the world is flat.” His point was that he was constantly watching people for inspiration, a habit he advised would-be authors to cultivate, and that the notion that the characters in his books were strictly the products of his imagination was as silly as assuming the world was flat. He also noted that if Humphrey Bogart and other Hollywood stars ever got royalties for all the novels they’d appeared in as characters (due to authors copying them from movies and inserting them in books), they’d be far richer than they already were.

    I assume most authors don’t actually say this to their friends and acquaintances just so that these wonderful people stay friends and acquaintances, and don’t instead ask whether they’re going to show up in the next book?

    • Peter Says:

      There’s room here for a witty, insightful comment on the relationship between observation and the beloved practice of Tuckerization.

      Unfortunately it’s the middle of the night and my brain is half-melted from marking exams, so this isn’t it.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Actually, I go out of my way to NOT use people I know as characters. The one time I’ve done a direct transfer is in a short story called “Jeff’s Best Joke,” in which my husband, Jim, and his co-director, Jeff Boyer, appear as themselves.

        I have done a few modified “tuckerizations,” but the people who bid to be included in the stories didn’t die, nor did they appear precisely under their own names.

        However, these are the exceptions. Of course, the people I have met influence me, but I don’t do one to one transfers.

        I’ve always found those tee-shirts that read “Be Careful or I’ll Put You in My Novel” (or some variation thereof) annoying and bullying.

      • Peter Says:

        I think things like auctioning off a character appearance fall into a different category than having one of your penpals driven insane by Nyarlathotep – there’s a spectrum from “observed characteristic” to “full-on Tuckerization”. Perhaps the key difference is one of intent – finding inspiration vs. teasing?

        I must admit to finding the “I’ll put you in my novel” shirts funny. Not for the threat, but for the people wearing them, since my experience has been that the odds of the kind of people wearing those shirts ever *completing* a novel – much less having anybody read it for any reason other than an “Eye of Argon” dare – are so low that they come off as threatening as a puppy challenging a steamroller to a fight to the death.

  4. Tori Says:

    O.O Bat King!

  5. Paul Says:

    I once told an author that one of her characters reminded me of the screen persona of the young Roddy McDowall. She was taken aback and said, “I thought that was my little secret.” Turns out she based several of her characters’ characteristics on those of actors. So the Bogart comment from Heteromeles is probably right on.

  6. Barbara Joan Says:

    I’m not a writer but an avid reader and I really enjoyed all the comments.

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