But what do a writer’s characters say about their creator? For in the end, a character will always contain some element of its creator’s personality. Sure, this could go off into a Freudian tangent about psychology, but my purpose here is to provide self-examination.
Does a writer live through his or her characters? If so, will a writer admit this? Can we better ourselves by departing from familiar archetypes and writing different ones?
One way of looking at it is that a character is a writer’s alter-ego. Not a carbon copy of the author’s persona, but an extension of it. An individual who is an animal lover in life may create a character that also keeps pets, and rails against any abuse towards them. Another example would be a wine enthusiast (yours truly) who writes characters that savor the results of pressed, fermented grapes. True, part of this is the ‘write what you know’ mantra, but what I’m referring to is an alter ego that does things the writer in question would never do, for the sake of drama and plot. How many writers are comfortable with that?
This alter ego undergoes dramatic events where the character in question reacts in a similar fashion as its creator would. For example, the pacing, physicality (or lack thereof) and ambience of a romantic scene might reflect what the writer finds romantic—not necessarily what the character would consider amorous. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I wonder how often writers actually sit back during a revision and ponder what the character in question would really do.
The second possibility is that characters are advocates for a writer’s fantasies. Critics often charge writers with this, but it bears thinking about. We’ve all read a story where it’s obvious the writer indulged in some emotional need via their characters. I’ve been guilty of it, too (but not any more—I hope!). Perhaps this is the mark of a young or inexperienced writer, but I’ve come across this in the work of famous authors whose careers span decades.
Characters who act as escapist avatars typically share several characteristics: they are attractive to the opposite sex, knowledgeable, rarely undergo challenging experiences they can’t handle, are invincible to physical harm, and impervious to emotional dilemmas. In other words they are paragons we all wish we could be, who always win the day, and never suffer the consequences. Too many writers do this. It’s what I call the ‘Superman' complex.
Superman is invulnerable, cannot be defeated, and is more or less a god-like being. Sure, Kryptonite is his bane, but c’mon, a character with one weakness? It’s too perfect. And too boring, because any plot that challenges him must feature that extraterrestrial substance. Emotional hurdles could be applied to Superman, but rarely are. Comics are different than the written word (and most have the soap opera quality of a never-ending saga where most things don’t have long-term repercussions) but we’ve all come across fiction that fits the same bill. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels come to mind. I’ve read a few, thought they were good reads—but there’s little character depth to them. Given Fleming’s life, and Bond’s attributes, it’s easy to see the inherent escapism in those stories. Through Bond, Fleming could pull off espionage capers he’d never be able to perform in real life.
Now, I’m not saying Fleming was a bad writer, or that escapist fiction is low-brow literary fare. But pretty much all of the man’s fiction was along the same vein, save for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
One of my favorite authors, Robert E. Howard, did the same thing. Though there are subtle differences between them, the characters of Conan, Kull, and several other Howard heroes are interchangeable. They are all unstoppable killing machines in battle, have melancholy outlooks on life, and bow to no one. And taking into account Howard’s vicissitudes, it’s easy to drape his works under the escapist shroud: living in a desolate region of Texas, conservative family and neighbors, lackluster social interaction. For me, what pulls Howard’s work out of the ‘Superman’ complex is its visceral power and gloomy worldview. Conan may always win, but knows he too will die one day, as will his civilization. Not exactly Superman saving Metropolis, is it?
Now before you accuse me of berating these authors, take note that both are considered masters of their fields—Fleming for the spy novel, Howard for sword & sorcery tales. They might have had only one theme or genre, but damn did they own it. Most of us other writers should hope to be as fortunate. I could name other best-selling authors who have ‘Superman’ characters, but since I regard their work as less than stellar, I’ll refrain from mentioning them here.
But we all can’t be Fleming or Howard. We have to write what feels natural for a character—yet why not stretch our horizons the next time we create one?
For my own characters, I like to punish them. Bruise them, bloody them, leave them barely conscious on the floor. Then let them struggle to survive. I have no fear of hurting them for the sake of the story. I like placing them in dark, gritty situations. Places where most people wouldn’t want to be—physically and emotionally. Then I watch them climb out of the darkness into the light of self-realization. Finding oneself to overcome adversity. But like the aforementioned authors, I’m guilty of doing this with more than one character.
The real question is, will I grow if I don’t challenge myself? Concerning my writing, I prefer an organic process to a systematic one, but sometimes change has to be actively sought.
Lately I’ve written more stories that feature a female main character. I want their femininity to offer a different viewpoint, not just use it as an excuse to have a ‘babelicious babe’ (as one of my fellow writers so rightfully terms it) in the story for sex appeal. I’d like to write about disabled characters, and ones with a different sexual orientation than myself. What I’m driving for is not a literary escapist fling, or selecting certain attributes to satisfy trends. I want something more.
I’d really like to view my stories through their eyes. As a woman. A homosexual. A blind person. One who is a pacifist, or a dedicated religious follower. Things that I am not, and can only hope to imitate via my fiction. In doing so I hope not only to write stories that entertain, but also allow me to see reality through an alternate perspective…and, I hope, learn from it.
In this regard, my fictional characters might go beyond mere alter egos or escapist caricatures that satisfy banal needs, and become engines of self-discovery.
So come and discover something with me. Within yourself.