Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne
Character does not arise in some pure form out of the writer’s imagination. The creative mind is influenced by a myriad of sources that gather in quantity and quality over a whole lifetime and arrives on the page either consciously or unconsciously. For instance, sources may make up any combination of the following: a close, casual or one-off acquaintance; the writer’s own personality; fiction such as films, novels and plays; non-fiction such as biographies, historical sources, documentaries and nowadays internet forums. It will certainly be the case that the personal experience of strong character (good or bad) will have impacted upon the writer emotionally as well as intellectually and that these types are the most likely to find themselves filtered on to the creative page at some point.
For the beginner writer, it is probable that the initial source used for character inspiration will not extend beyond the early stages of the story, especially if the character is going to be the protagonist. The reason for this is simple: character will have to change throughout the story due to the circumstances and pressures of the plot, and therefore our original limited inspiration will soon run out of steam. Who doesn’t reconfigure their emotional level and attitude and therefore physical behaviour when undergoing trying circumstances? This happens even in a short story. When the character refuses to grow in a developing plot, the character will feel stubbornly two-dimensional or unrealistic. This, of course, will irritate intelligent readers. The protagonist must not only undergo a physical journey throughout the story, but also an emotional one. There must be some inner change.
There may be one or two exceptions where the original source of ideas for character definition and development provides all the necessary attributes to carry the protagonist through the entire plot. But this can only happen if the original character has gone through all the exact same circumstances of the plot in another medium and the writer has a record of their inner (emotional) journey. An example might be a crime writer planning a novel inspired by a gangster’s autobiography. The writer wants to model his protagonist on the real-life gangster and use some of the big details of the gangster’s life story for his story’s main-plot points. Fine. But few writers will actually stick faithfully to the biographical source, because as creative writers they will be eager to develop some storyline originality in their work. And, once they decide to do this, they have to reach outside of the framework of the autobiography and start to play a guessing game regarding how their fictional character will think, feel and act because the autobiographical character can no longer show them. Of course, they will have to be consistent with the character already partly formed, but now they must also search for inspiration from other sources in order to keep the character growing throughout the plot. This is often something not done consciously, as mentioned earlier, and involves the writer drawing on character attributes from a myriad of sources which are stored in the writer’s memory bank.
However, it may also be done consciously. In our example, though the autobiography will offer the opportunity to take chunks of inspiration for character development up to a point, supposing the writer wants to write a novel about a gangster who attempts to turn over a new leaf but is thwarted at every turn and this takes a considerable detour from the autobiographical line of inspiration? Now the writer may deliberately look for character inspiration from other specific book sources to help him out.
In general, an initial and single source of inspiration is useful for defining a character and giving that character a shove into the body of the story. But as the plot starts to throw up challenge after challenge, the writer starts to realise that what looked like a good bet for a strong character in the inspiration and planning stages of the story now looks a lot less of a sure thing. Soon the writer understands that they simply don’t have enough character to work with; they wonder how the character is going to respond to the next big challenge. Often, they find themselves unable to make their character react in a reasonable and consistent way. They may well have written down lots of physical and emotional descriptions about the character based on the original inspiration, but now they see that this is simply not enough as the growth of the plot is stretching their character beyond the initial usefulness of the notes. The writer must now look elsewhere in order to help develop the character further.
Getting stuck this way isn’t inevitable. The experienced writer is aware of its possibility and so is ready for it. For the beginner writer it often comes as quite a shock to realise that they have no idea how their character will respond emotionally and possibly even physically to the next plot hurdle, and in a way which is consistent to the layer of character already installed in the earlier part of the tale.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that character must all be developed in the planning stage; that what we start off with we must finish with. This is quite a ridiculous idea. Many writers will develop character through draft writing and probably be researching it and certainly searching for inspiration for it continuously. With each draft the character comes into focus that bit clearer and stronger and some of the thought processes and actions allocated to him or her in the previous draft get shunned while fresh ones are encouraged into play. The point to note here is that the beginner writer needs to be aware that the early inspiration will soon run out, and when this happens, they must then be prepared to search farther and wider afield for other sources of inspiration.
Overall, the development of character in a story is a matter of blending. This is really what imagination is doing: it is not creating a totally new character out of thin air but rather gathering and blending various sources of inspiration together to create a plausible character which the reader can relate to and believe in.
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