Hello. My name is Mortimus Clay and I am dead.
No need to express condolences. While there are many things I miss about being alive: the wind in my face, fish and chips, the musty smell of my dog Spenser after a long walk on a dewy morning, there are …*gasp*. I … *choke*… oh my. On second thought, send condolences.
(The sound of quiet sobbing interrupted by sniffles.)
Mortimus Clay, back again and doing his best to keep a stiff upper lip, as they say, at the invitation of Chelle, the genial hostess of Tempting Persephone, to wax grandio-eloquent on the subject of writing character fiction.
Now I have an advantage over many of my peers in this regard seeing as I have been accused of being a fictional character myself. But what some might consider a liability I see as an asset! I can empathize with fictional characters. And that, after all, is a secret to writing good character fiction – getting into the heads of your characters and writing from the inside out.
Well, onto the subject at hand.
First a few words about plot and how character relates. Some people read for plot and others lean more toward character but everyone knows you need both. The question is, how do they get along? Is it a compromise? Does one dominate the other? No and no I say. There must be alchemy. They must enrich and inform the other. People respond to things and do things. Events shape people and provide the seed bed for what they do. Some authors are so dedicated to plot their characters are somewhat wooden and puppet like. Others are so wrapped up in character that nothing ever happens and everything is psychology. In both cases you end up not caring – either because you don’t like the characters or there is no movement to the story.
Next: here are a few things I do when writing character. The two most important things I keep in mind are these. A character should have a dominant trait and along with that, there should be some inner tension or conflict. The dominant trait is a sort of handle that helps a reader place the character and the tension makes the character interesting. Once you understand those things you can write dialog and engage in plot development. I know some writers begin with a personal history for their characters before they write about them. That is far too much work for me. I tend to discover who my characters are as I write about them. If I know the dominant trait and I know the inner conflict discovering the history becomes part of the story.
This sort of character development can be supported in a number of ways – voice, physical characteristics, circumstances surrounding the character, and even the character’s name. For example, Chelle mentioned she likes the names of my characters in The Purloined Boy. One she picked out as an example of an interesting name is Ichabod.
Ichabod may bring to mind the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hallow by Washington Irving, but even Irving was looking further back when he used the name. (Yes, I spoke to Irv the other day about this very thing.) Ichabod is a Hebrew word meaning, “the glory has departed”. Most people wouldn’t know that. But there is something about the how the name draws upon a vague cultural memory that makes it handy for an author. It conveys a sense of despair. Ichabod in The Purloined Boy is an incompetent and irritable magician who whiles away his life in a library full of books he doesn’t understand or know how to read. He’s an ancient man with an immense beard and eyes that are set just a little too close together. Further he has the disconcerting habit of mocking people in the sort of sing-song voice more commonly associated with 8 year olds.
Many of the names I use are real names drawn from history, philosophy, and religion. Even the exotic sounding ones are real. Here are a few: Epictetus (a Stoic philosopher), Paracelsus (a medieval alchemist), Lucian (a satirist and a contemporary of the historic Epictetus), Marcus (another Stoic), and Meno (a character from a Platonic dialog). For other characters I use names not directly based on real people but more for the effect and the inherent meaning: Mr. Gourmand, Drake, Tubby, Sabnock (an actual mythological name for a demon), Mother Root, and from my next book – Professor Winkle Harebottom. For my protagonists I use names that (I hope) quietly evoke the nature of the character – e.g. “Trevor Upjohn” (the male protagonist) and “Maggie Blase” (the female protagonist – whose true first name the reader discovers is Abigail. That fact she hates her given name tells you something about her.)
Well, that is enough for now. “Dead men tell no tales” and I’m doubly guilty of writing tales and telling people about how to write them. Thank you, Chelle for affording me this opportunity. To my readers, I hope you have a chance to read The Purloined Boy and if you do, I hope you enjoy it.