Thursday, February 2, 2012


Stranger than Fiction

Where do your characters come from? Do you use real people, or do you just make them up? How can you make them seem real?

These are questions authors are often asked at readings, signings or writing seminars. The creation of character is an endlessly fascinating puzzle, because character is at the heart of story. It’s the characters who draw us into the story, the characters whom we come to love, hate or root for. Characters have to come alive on the page as vivid, credible and genuine, with all the complexity and contradictions of real life.

There are many paths to this goal.. Some writers write elaborate character sketches beforehand, answering such questions as where the person went to school. Thus, when they finally do start to write, they feel they know that character well. Others do the opposite; they merely toss the character onto the page, make him talk and interact, and see how he unfolds. The first technique runs the risk of creating a static character who won’t adapt to the changing story or reveal surprises and layers as he goes along. The latter technique, although strong on flexibility and surprises, may result in a superficial character who is only vaguely conceived.

But regardless of whether we take a cerebral or an intuitive approach, we still need to conjure up characters out of our imagination. How? Partly, we draw on the people we know. Over a lifetime, we have dozens of close relationships – family, work, romance – and observed lots of people. We have worked hard to understand them, see things from their point of view and walk in their shoes. Most of us, with a few glaring exceptions, develop a fair sense of empathy. Empathy is the base from which we create real characters. Once we have sketched out in our mind the type of person he is, drawn some links to real people we know, we step into his shoes, see the scene and the situation from inside his skin, and we write from that perspective. The more different kinds of people we know and the more practiced we are at empathy, the more powerfully real our characters will feel.

But there are some psychic divides across which a writer cannot reach, some characters whose paths we cannot walk. Here we can merely analyze and make observations. I think most of us can step into the shoes of our murderer. We can draw on our own anger, rage, fear and desperation, on those times when we ourselves felt the urge to kill. But most of us can’t walk in the shoes of a psychopathic serial killer. Police, correctional personnel and mental health specialists and researchers might get the closest, but even they can’t truly relate.

Another example emerged in the past few weeks. Most of us have been following the so-called honour killing case in Kingston Ontario, in which a father, mother and their eldest son were on trial for the cold-blooded killing of their three teenage daughters as well as the father’s other wife. This crime is incomprehensible enough by itself, stretching our capacity for human understanding and empathy well beyond the breaking point. But it was the subsequent actions and demeanour of the three accused that is truly mind-boggling. Sadly, many murders involve the killing of loved ones, usually in fits of rage, jealousy, or unbearable pain. The torment of the killer is usually palpable. They are often suicidal and clearly display anguish over the act and the loss.

Not so this extraordinary trio. They expressed outrage at being charged, lied repeatedly and inconsistently throughout the trial, manipulated the system and co-opted other people, including their surviving children, to serve their own interests. Throughout the trial, I kept trying to figure out their perspective and imagine how they saw the world. What, deep inside in the privacy of their own hearts, were their true thoughts and feelings. But I could make no connection.

There are times when a writer is stumped. When characters come along in real life that we could not even begin to make up. Our imagination is limited by our ability to comprehend our fellow humans and to walk in their shoes. And in the case of this trio, I think even if I tried to write a character like that, no one would believe him. That character isn’t real, the readers would say. People aren’t like that.

But sometimes they are.

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which havewon back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched last May.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the insightful comments about how we dream up our story characters. Sometimes life is stranger (and uglier) than fiction, isn't it?