Take Home Tuesday Hosted by Lynn Flewelling
Update: The winner of THE WHITE ROAD by Lynn Flewelling is Kathleen. Congrats! Please email your physical addy to contests(AT)knightagency.net.
Drawing From the Real
On May 25 the fifth in my Nightrunner Series, THE WHITE ROAD, was released by Random House's Spectra imprint. In an early review, The Romantic Times called my two roguish main characters, Seregil and Alec, "two of the most memorable heroes in fantasy." Good reviews are always nice, but I particularly like that one, because creating characters is the best part of my job.An inevitable interview question is, "Where do you get your ideas?" Stephen King gave one of my favorite responses: in a box in an alley behind a local pawn shop.
I give credit to the Great Cosmic Compost Heap that is our subconscious mind. The more prosaic answer? Everywhere. If you're not finding bits and pieces you can use in everyday life, you're just not paying attention. By paying attention and being open to new experiences you stoke that Great Cosmic Compost Heap. That's where the ideas come from, or at least my best ones. This is just as true of character creation as it is of world building. People fascinate me. I love studying faces, bodies, voice in airports or on subways. Such diversity! Years ago, when we lived in DC, I was getting on a bus and there was an elderly man ahead of me. As he reached for the door handle to climb up, I saw that his hands and face were covered in sharp bone spurs, especially on his knuckles. It made a strong impression, and years later an old beggar based on him appeared in one of the Nightrunner books. In that case I had only a visual impression, and my gut reactions at the time—surprise, unease, pity— are meant to telegraph to the reader, as well.
I rarely base characters directly on someone I know, but there are a few exceptions. My grandmother was a tough lady, loving, but also impatient and sharp-tongued. She was a little Scots Canadian woman, and in later life suffered with osteoporosis, which left her bowlegged and stooping, but unbowed. She had iron grey hair and a heavy, deeply lined face. Much of her life revolved around cooking and managing her extended family. When I needed to create a tavern owner closely allied with my main characters, my memories of Gram just sort of surfaced and now she lives on in Thryis, inn keeper at the Cockerel Inn. She makes only cameo experiences through two books, but every time she shows up I know exactly what she'll say and do.
However, it's not necessary to create an exact replica. In fact, it's impossible, since we only know certain facets of any person, no matter how close we are to them. So you distill out what you need and embroider the rest. It's usually better not to tell the person who serves as your "template," either; too often they think you got them wrong. Believe me, I speak from experience and other writers will tell you the same.
Another advantage of looking to real life, especially with character creation, is variety. It's dangerously easy to make all your secondary characters look pretty much alike, or generic: the stooped old woman, the fat tavern keeper, the tall and brawny hero, the always-beautiful heroine. There are real people of that description, of course, but the writer is in charge and needs to go a little deeper. Warts, stutters, dirty nails, missing teeth—don't make them into caricatures, but do flesh them out.
As for main characters, why do female heroes have to be pretty, or male heroes broodingly handsome? I have several plain characters, including Tamír, the protagonist of the Tamír Triad. The cover artist insisted on making her prettier, of course, but in the reader's mind, I want them to see someone who doesn't have men swooning at her feet, or women. That isn't a factor in her impact as a main character; it's her bravery, honesty, and will. A verse from Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" sticks in my mind: "You told me again you preferred handsome men but for me you would make an exception/ And clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty/ you fixed yourself, you said, "Well, never mind, we are ugly but we have the music."
Of course, appearance can be a double-edged thing. The two characters mentioned at the outset are very good looking. Seregil, a master of disguise, has, in fact, passed as a woman in the course of his work, but the same good looks allow him to present himself as "just another pretty face" at court, where being underestimated works in his favor as he passes himself off as a person of little consequence.
Give your characters the music. Let their personality and actions carry them, not just their looks.
Leave a comment to win a copy of THE WHITE ROAD by Lynn Flewelling. The winner will be announced tomorrow afternoon.