Tag Archives: character creation

Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!

Inspirations

This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.

Physical

There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.

Speech

What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins

Occupation

What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.

Inspirations

So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?

Writers and Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis

SANTA MONICA, CA – JANUARY 10: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of Best Actor for “Lincoln,” poses in the press room at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This past week, Summer began and Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting. At first, I thought it was one of those internet jokes that pop up all the time.  But no. This news was real. So, I sought out the article to get the details, and I hoped, a reason. But no, no reason. Only that it was a private decision and there would be no further comment. In other words, it’s none of our business why.

I was terribly sad about this. Day-Lewis is an actor I’ve been following since 1986 with a mixture of amazement and profound respect. I’ve written at this blog how his performance in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans taught me to focus on character and helped me to push through a major writer’s block. His performances make me feel human, creative, joyful, and eager to write. I’ll miss him, miss the anticipation and wonder of what he’ll do next.  His last movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who directed him in There Will be Blood, is supposed to be in theaters in December of this year.  That will be an event.

He has a Wikipedia page that I found informative. I had not known that he’s now a “Sir,” having been knighted in 2014. Or that he lives primarily in Ireland where he can be a private citizen, more or less, and raise his family in peace. He’s also 60 years old. So it’s not like he’s retiring when he’s 35. But I can’t help feeling that his retirement is a tremendous loss for acting as well as for writers.

In Variety online, Owen Gleiberman writes about the impact of Day-Lewis’ retirement, reviewing the history of acting in the last century: the Olivier School vs. the Brando School. What Day-Lewis did was to combine the two, not only paying close attention to the external details of a character — hair, gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc. — but also to the details of the character’s personality and emotional states. Day-Lewis acted 3-dimensionally. It had to be exhausting at times. Gleiberman ends his article with this:

“He didn’t just want to show up in a movie as some version of himself; he wanted to transcend himself — to literally make acting into an out-of-body experience. The question going forward isn’t whether Day-Lewis is really retiring. It’s whether the spirit of transformation that he represents has come to seem like a mountain that actors no longer need, or even want, to climb.”

For me, Daniel Day-Lewis the actor will always be an inspiration, a guiding light, that I’ll turn to when I need to be reminded about what is truly important in writing. For that, I will be forever grateful.

 

Character: The Dark Side of Heroic

Raskolnikov, Holden Caulfield, Winston Smith, MacBeth, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan and Tom Ripley. What do these fictional characters all have in common?

They are all protagonists, but fail to fit into the category of the archetypal hero due to their imperfections, their lack of positive qualities or having qualities that normally belong to villains. This kind of protagonist has populated literature for hundreds of years, and has spread to movies and television. He is the antihero.

Not the tragic hero who possesses one major flaw but is still heroic.  An antihero’s flaws overpower and dominate his heroic qualities.  Nor is he a Byronic hero who is simply rebellious, a sympathetic figure who rejects virtue but could be redeemed.

Antiheroes tend to lack the self-awareness they’d need to redeem themselves.  And no one else can redeem them either. They frequently perceive the rest of the world as wrong, suffer from grandiosity and narcissism, but are lovable and sympathetic.  They want to do good, but their definition of good may be skewed more in the area of bad. For example, they believe the ends justify the means in the pursuit of some honorable goal, including breaking the law in myriad ways — murder and mayhem.  Hannibal Lecter offers a good example of this: he has a specific moral code that he defends and protects. His moral code, however, is not the one most people live by, so people are always running afoul of his code. His solution is to kill them. If people would just honor his moral code, the world would be a much better place…for Hannibal, of course.

Antiheroes fascinate me. I love them. My favorites right now are Tom Ripley and Dexter Morgan. They are villains who are the heroes of their stories. Completely human and sympathetic, they charm through their flaws, and with each the reader glimpses the psychological pain that contributed to the formation of their personalities.

When I began writing Perceval, I wanted to explore the effects of psychological trauma in childhood on personality, behavior and how such a character perceives the world and his reality. The deeper I dug into the story, the more I realized that my protagonist also needed to confront the reality of the trauma he had experienced. My research convinced me that unlike most antiheroes, mine could have a conscience that he developed from his early experiences with a positive influence, a man who countered the force of the trauma in some way. This pseudo-conscience also makes him sympathetic and “good.”

I see now how my imagination was gradually steering me toward first a sequel to the first book and then to creating a series of five novels to encompass this protagonist’s journey and his struggle with the choices he does and doesn’t make. When I discovered Dexter Morgan and Jeff Lindsay’s novels through the television show, I realized that my protagonist too has an awareness, however different, about human emotions, how they affect behavior, where he is lacking, where he fakes it, and where he truly connects with his emotional being.

A quote by the psychologist Carl Jung has also influenced my work on Perceval’s story and character creation and development.  Jung said, “Where love reigns, there is no will to power; and where the will to power is paramount, love is lacking. The one is but the shadow of the other.” A desire for power, i.e. external power, or power over someone or something, makes real love impossible but not neediness, or the narcissistic need for love and approval. Characters who give only to benefit themselves are examples of this. As are antiheroes.

I know now that the questions that drive my thinking and work on the Perceval novels are: will my protagonist redeem himself?  How? I don’t know.  I write for the answer…..

For a list of antiheroes in literature, movies and television, check out this Wikipedia page.

 

Character Creation — “There Will Be Blood”

As an addition to my previous post about characters and language, watching actors at work inspires me and provokes me to think about how important detail is when creating a character.

Over the weekend I finally saw the movie There Will Be Blood.  Daniel Day Lewis played the main character, Daniel Plainview, an “oilman” who wants to make enough money so he can live someplace away from people.  Day Lewis uses everything at his disposal to create Plainview — his body, gestures, manner of speaking, his silences also, the way he walks and runs.  Plainview is a man who walks with his shoulders hunched in self-protection, closed, his legs bowed and with a slight limp from a broken leg at the beginning of the movie.  There is also a slinking quality to his walk and movements.  His expression however is one of confidence, knowing, being in control.  I love seeing the incongruities, and master actors most often bring them out in subtle ways, as Day Lewis does.

The really impressive aspect of Day Lewis’ Plainview however is the voice and manner of speaking.  Not even close to Day Lewis’ actual voice — there’s only one moment in the entire movie when he sounds like himself and that’s when he shouts at one point.  Otherwise, the voice conveys in its raspy rhythms a smooth operator and a hint of unpleasantness, danger, threat. 

I don’t know if any of this detail was on the page in the script or evolved from Day Lewis and/or discussions with the director/writer.  But for me as a writer, it is a reminder of the use of detail to create a fully-dimensional character on the page, someone the reader can easily imagine.  Real people are a conglomeration of detail in movement, appearance, speech and behavior and fictional characters need to be also.  Which doesn’t mean it’s easy….