Josip Novakovich – Fiction Writer’s Workshop
Sources of characters
Where do you find fictional people?
You can completely make them up, using psychology textbooks, astrology charts,
mythology, the Bible or, simply, your imagination. This is the ideal method – ideal in
a sense that you work from a purely intellectual creation, an idea about a character
whom you have not observed and who is not you. Although by using this method you
don’t draw from people you know to make your characters, you must speak of real
passions, and each character must appear like a real person. Real person is a bit of
a contradiction in terms because persona, the Latin root for person, means ‘mask’.
We usually take a mask to be the ‘unreal’, phony part of a person. But wearing a
mask at a carnival can help you live out your true passions that otherwise, due to
social pressures, you keep in check. Fiction is a carnival. So give us real passions
with good masks, and everybody will be fair game! Make up character masks,
release dramatic conflicts beneath them, and you will create startling people, such as
you would like, or fear, to meet.
The mother of all methods – though not necessarily the one you should use most –
is the autobiographical method, for it is through your own experience that you grasp
what it is to be a person. Because of this, you are bound, at least to some extent, to
project yourself into the fictional characters you render by any other method. Many
writers project themselves into all the characters they portray. This is, metaphorically
speaking, the fission approach: an atom may be split into several, during which an
enormous amount of energy is released. Fyodor Dostoyevski split his personality into
many fictional ones, all of them as temperamental as he. Mel Brooks, the comedy
writer and movie director, thinks this is the primary way to write: ‘Every human being
has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his
ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities, and have them
relate to other characters living with him.’
In the biographical method, you use people you have observed (or researched) as
the starting points for your fictional character. This seems to be the most popular method. Despite legal limitations on the biographical method, don’t shut down this
basic source of fictional characters. Hemingway said that if he explained the process
of turning a real-life character into a fictional one, it would be a handbook for libel
lawyers. The notion that writers work this way will keep some people quiet around
you lest you broadcast their secrets. For a long while it irritated me that my older
brother would not believe that I was becoming a writer; and now that he does, it
irritates me even more because he does not tell me anything about himself. To find
out about him, I talk to our middle brother, and as soon as my older brother finds out
that that’s how it works, he probably won’t talk to him either.
Most fictional characters are directly or at least indirectly drawn from life. E.M.
Forster, author of A Passage to India, said: ‘We all like to pretend we don’t use real
people, but one does actually. I used some of my family … This puts me among the
large body of authors who are not really novelists, and who have to get on as best
they can.’ (By the way, most novelists are not really novelists, and they must get on
as best they can. Nobody is born with this stuff, and hardly anybody becomes quite
secure in the craft. I think that’s comforting: Novelists are regular people, like you
Using the biographical method, writers often compose their characters from the traits
of several people. To express it with another term from nuclear physics, this is the
fusion approach: You fuse character traits the way you fuse atoms. Lillian Hellman,
author of Pentimento, supports this view of making fictional characters: ‘I don’t think
you start with a person. I think you start with parts of many people. Drama has to do
with conflict in people, with denials.’ She looks for conflicts in real people and gives
these conflicts to her fictional characters, whose traits she gets from other people.
The fourth way to create fictional characters is the mixed method. Writers frequently
combine the biographical and the ideal methods since there’s a limit to relying on
direct knowledge of characters. In part, this stems from our inability to know people
in depth. Somerset Maugham, author of Of Human Bondage, said: ‘People are hard
to know. It is a slow business to induce them to tell you the particular thing about
themselves that can be of use to you.’ Unless you are a psychiatrist or a priest, you
probably will not find out the deep problems of the people around you. That does not
mean you can’t use some aspects of the people you know. But soon you must fill in
the gaps, and let’s hope that then you will create a character independent from the
real-life model. You may use ideas and imagination, or it may happen
spontaneously, as it apparently did to Graham Greene, author of The Human Factor,
who said: ‘One gets started and then, suddenly, one cannot remember what
toothpaste they use … The moment comes when a character does or says
something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave it to
him.’ If your character begins to do something different from what the real-life
precedent would do, encourage this change, and forget about the real-life model.
Soon you should have someone answering to the necessities of your plot and
conflicts, not to the memory of the person you started with.
The ideal to strive for is a character who will come to life seemingly on his own. It will
no longer be the person from life outside the novel that served as a starting point, but
a fictional one, who not only is there to be written about, but who, in an optimal case,
writes for you. Erskine Caldwell expressed this blessed autonomy of fictional
characters: ‘I have no influence over them. I’m only an observer, recording. The story
is always being told by the characters themselves.’
Not all writers give their characters autonomy and allow them to dictate what to write
down. John Cheever said: ‘The legend that characters run away from their authors –
taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president – implies that the
writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. This is absurd.’ Of course,
Cheever believed in his method and distrusted the methods of other authors. I think
it’s silly when a writer assumes that his method is the method for all writers.
However, it is good to learn what approaches exist, to try them all, and to see which
works best for you.
But one principle about constructing characters can be stated unequivocally.
Whether your characters attain autonomy or not, whether they come from you or
from Greek myths, the more you get to know them, the better you will work with
Novakovich, J. (1995) Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Cincinnati, Ohio: Story Press, pp.