Sunday, June 18, 2006

No, They're Themselves

Writer's Weekly Question # 19 (or possibly 20):

Have you ever created a character based on someone you know? Was it because you liked the person, or disliked the person? How was the character different or like the person you based him or her on?

I'm trying to think of any characters I've come up with over the years outside the Mâvarin books, and whether any of them fit in this category. Aside from the occasional fictionalized version of myself, I really don't think so. No, wait, I take it back. There was an angry, fat college student in a short story once who was sorta-kinda an amalgam of my roommmate and myself, and a man in another short story who was based on my ex-boyfriend at the time, Bob. The latter was an attempt to tap into some more emotional, closer to home subject matter than my usual stuff, although really, my Mâvarin characters were also dealing with issues at least vaguely like my own problems at the time. The protagonist of "Dreamsong" was based on Bob because Bob was an interesting character in real life, and fit the story. Neither story was intended to either praise or put down these people in my life. They were just a starting point for the characters.

In the Mâvarin books, with my beloved cast of hundreds, only a few players are even a little bit based on people I know. Li Ramet is about 10% my brother. Two father figure characters, Pol Ramet and Jamek Barst / Jami Baret, are each 10% my dad (not the same 10%). Baku Dener is about 20% my husband, John Blocher, as my beta readers have noticed. Typically, these characters have some character trait that is similar to that of someone I know, but have little else in common with the real people. Baku, for example, has John's skepticism and underlying kindness, but is very different in temperament, appearance, interests, and profession. Baku is much more sociable than John, for one thing. But somewhere along the way, he picked some of John's attitudes and ran with them - and I'm glad he did.

Even the one character who is heavily and deliberately based on a real person, the mage Rutana, isn't really my mom. I couldn't write my mom if I tried. They have similar names, interests, medical histories, marital histories and taste in clothing, but that's about as far as it goes. Rutana's marriage broke up for different reasons from Ruth Anne's, and she doesn't really talk the same way. Okay, I know that doesn't make her sound like an independent character, but she pretty much is anyway.

That's just as well, because I have no desire to import real people into Mâvarin. The stories are best served by having characters who are not slaves to some factual source material, but free to be themselves. They all start with a spoonful to half a cup of Karen, mixed with whatever's going on in the story that requires their presence. They then tell me who they are by what they do, usually without reference to anything my friends or relatives did before htm. Rani has my introspection and then-youthful alienation, but really, he's Rani, not Karen or Joel or Steve or even an archetype or Christ figure. I know who Rani is and what he'd do, and it's based on who the character has become over thirty years of intermittent writing about him. I know when Cathma is going to say something she shouldn't, or when Carli is about to do something foolish.

A moment ago, I said that the characters all start out as Karen, at least a little bit. This is fairly common. After all, who else do we ultimately know through and through, as we need to know our characters? But unless the character is a Mary Sue (an idealized verson of the author), she will soon differentiate herself. Madeleine L'Engle once said:

"As my protagonist deepened, so did I. Now this character was at first no more than a thinly-disguised self-image, but as I learned to listen to the work during the writing, Katherine Forrester began to have her own separate identity. And the more real she became, the more apart from me, the more I learned about the writing of fiction and about myself."
--from a lecture at a writer's workshop, quoted in Madeleine L'Engle, Herself.

I have more ranting to do on this subject, but I think I'll stop there for now.


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DesLily said...

I don't think you're ranting ..but it's a good question to get into. I think most characters are either parts of those we know.. or parts of how we'd like someone to be..or parts of things we fear..

Sarah said...

Fascinating stuff, here! I love learning a little about the real-life origins of the characters I have come to know. I had guessed about Baku of course, but had no clue about any of the others.