Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Characters: Where do they come from?

A recent post by Carol Kilgore at got me thinking about how I create characters, and some of the resources that have stimulated and broadened my thinking over time. So, thank you, Carol, for starting me thinking about this.

           I’m like many other writers—I like to think my characters emerge as their own souls, fully formed, entirely independent of mortal creation, eternal and grander than my mere imagination can create. A dream, yes.

            More likely is that I’ve been absorbing the traits and behaviors of those I see around me as well as what I read, and there are some very good resources for helping the faltering imagination with character development.

            First, the twelve astrological signs tend to give a well-rounded description of a number of personality types, and their less attractive qualities can easily be laced with evil intent. The home-loving Cancer can become the obsessive wife who will kill to protect her home, and the hard-driving Taurus can be the insensitive executive who tramples everyone and anyone in the drive to get ahead—a gratifying choice for the victim. Any book explaining astrology gives full descriptions for these personality types and a year’s worth of predictions suggests the kinds of traps each one might fall into.

            Second, a few years ago several books were published about the ancient Sufi tradition of the Enneagram, which describes nine personality types and their interrelationships. The descriptions of each one go on for several pages and even include examples of each type.  The nine types are the perfectionist, giver, performer, tragic romantic, observer, devil’s advocate, epicure, boss, and mediator. No one person is entirely one type, and the teachings include variations on the standard one. The givers can be seen in the negative side to be quite selfish and histrionic—a wonderful dynamic for a supposedly good character.

            Third, the characteristic features of specific features of handwriting can lead to a remarkably deep sense of who someone is. Handwriting analysis books are readily available, and examples can be drawn from one’s own writing. I sometimes use reactions to someone’s handwriting in a story to reveal something about both the narrator and the other character. It can be unsettling to see a well-dressed woman scribble a note in the appalling handwriting of a barely literate child, or a graceful signature written by a construction worker.

            Fourth, I recently came across a book about ethnic character types. I found this at first hard to swallow, but after reading through some of the articles and coming across some other ethnic history, I began to see the value in some of it. The Irish, which is my heritage, were slow to assimilate because they wanted to keep their ethnic heritage, which included a love of the passing day—a love of living in the present rather than making money in order to someday have a good time. I pondered that for a long time, as a member of the tribe, and had to admit that it has some merit. But that’s another story.

            If you have tips to develop characters and find their flaws or their virtues, let me know. I’m always looking for ways to expand my library of resources.