[Warning: This post touches on an emotional political issue in order to illustrate a point. I do NOT want the comments on this post to devolve into political debate. This is ultimately a post about writing and character work. Please refrain from commenting on the political stuff beyond how it relates to character work. Comments that are polemical or divisive, whether or not they agree with my personal political views, will be deleted. Thank you. We now return to our regularly scheduled Monday post…]
There is a moment late in the second Thieftaker book, Thieves’ Quarry (due out July 2 from Tor), in which my protagonist, Ethan Kaille, explains to another character all that has happened in the previous days and how the magic wielded by the “bad guy” contributed to a series of attacks and deaths. When he is finished, he and the character in question have the following exchange:
For some time after Ethan finished his tale, Geoffrey sat unmoving, watching him.
“I don’t know whether to thank you for all you’ve done, or to ban you from this house and demand that you never return,” he said, his glare smoldering in the candlelight.
Ethan stared back at him, unsure of what he had done to earn such a response. “I don’t understand. I didn’t–”
“It’s not a matter of what you did or didn’t do,” Geoffrey said. “But if this power you wield can give and take life with such ease . . .” He shook his head. “How can such a thing not be evil?”
“I carry a knife on my belt,” Ethan said. “I can take a life with it. Does that make the knife evil? Or does the question of good or evil fall to the man holding the blade?”
Immediately after I wrote this passage, I sat back in my desk chair and came close to deleting the whole thing. Why? Because the argument Ethan makes in that moment, is the classic argument used by the National Rifle Association to combat gun control measures that I support. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Ethan is basically saying the same thing about his magic. More, by implication he is saying that people like me who support gun control, would be the same people calling for his execution simply because he’s “a witch.” That was a very hard pill for me to swallow.
For a number of reasons, I wound up keeping the passage. The lines work; the conversation is well-written, it flows nicely. But most to the point, it is exactly what Ethan would say. And while this might mean that were he alive today, he and I would be on opposite sides of the gun debate, so be it. Ethan is his own person.
And that, of course, is the most important part of this post.
Who are our characters? The assumption made by so many readers is that our characters are us in some way. Actually, it’s not just readers. Some time back I asked a writer friend (Kate Elliott) to read a manuscript that I had written in first person POV. She enjoyed the book and particularly liked the voice. “It drew me in so much,” she later told me, “that I found myself thinking ‘Wow, does David really believe these things?’ I had to remind myself that I was reading a character’s thoughts and not yours.” It was a high compliment, but it also made the point that even those of us who do this for a living sometimes forget that there is distance between the author and the people s/he writes about.
Now, I am not saying that authors have nothing in common with their characters, nor do I deny that for some very fine authors, their characters truly are reflections of themselves. I will also admit that in a few respects, Ethan and I are very much alike. He responds emotionally much the way I would to certain events or statements. But we are not clones. How could we be? He is a man of the 18th century. He is an ex-convict, an ex-military man. He has been through the living hell of prison and forced labor. He has no family, few friends. And he puts his life at risk on a near daily basis. None of those things is true of me. If we were too much alike, it would mean that my character work was deeply flawed.
As I have said before, I am often asked if I model any of my characters after people I know. I don’t, and the reason is this: whenever I have tried in the past to create a character based on a “real” person, I have found that my character work suffers. I start to feel constricted in what I can do with that character because I know that s/he is supposed to be like “X.” For me, the most gratifying part of creating a character is that moment when s/he comes alive and starts to do things that I neither anticipated nor necessarily wanted. That moment, which I have called “the quickening,” is magical. It tells me that my character is, on some level, a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. The problem with creating characters based on “real” people is the inherent assumption that characters AREN’T real. They are. They have to be. Or else their story will fall flat.
So, who are our characters? The answer sounds like the worst kind of syllogism, but it’s really not. They are themselves. They are people with histories and beliefs. They are people with a lifetime of experiences; they have lived through triumphs and failures, moments of elation and darkest grief. They are flawed and scarred, but also resourceful and strong. They are products of their time in history, their cultures and societies whether real or imagined. Really, unless they have somehow lived the same lives we have, they can’t be like us. They should not react to every situation as we would. They should not believe all the things we do. It makes no sense that they would. Each character is his or her own person, which is exactly why other people want to read about them.
When Ethan spoke those lines that bothered me so much, he forced me to confront a startling and troubling reality. It wasn’t just that Ethan isn’t like me. I’ve known that all along, and I’ve gone to great lengths to make him his own person. What bothered me was the possibility that, were we to meet, he and I might not get along. And that was just weird.
How about you? In what ways to you differ from your protagonist? Can you point to things that s/he has said or done that you know you would have handled differently? Does it ever bother you to find you and your characters are so different (or, perhaps, so similar)?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net