To follow on from my last post, I truly am fascinated by people.
And I am writing a book.
The book has characters. Each character has attributes: their looks, their speech, what happens to them, even their name.
So how do I create and fill out characters without using the appearance, words or experiences of people I know? I do not want to be sued for libel or defamation and I certainly do not want to cause upset. So I’ve been coming up with some rules for my work.
Looks and characteristics
1. I can use generic attributes. There is nothing libellous about giving a character a long beard. Or a speech impediment. Or a red face when they get angry. What would be wrong would be to associate fictional attributes with a real person (dead or alive). Details about fictional characters must not identifiably connect with any single source; no one person could claim I was writing about them.
2. I can humanise my characters. Each fictional character has a set of qualities and flaws of their own, just like each of us. Individual hurts, feelings and private agendas, along with what they value and their annoying habits. This combination of qualities and flaws need not match any person I know; I just need a good mix.
3. I can use or avoid stereotypes. So, I would avoid a stereotype where I wanted to make a point – a dramatic clue for the reader. However, I would use a stereotype to aid the flow of the story. It doesn’t need to be a bland or tired character you may have seen elsewhere. Sometimes I get ideas for a character’s personality based on the features of an animal, a musical instrument or a plant. A character based initially on a banana plant may be tall, expressive, easy to peel (an ‘open book’?), prone to pranks and with a silly sense of humour.
Speech and Dialogue
4. Where I am creating dialogue, I can produce original speech. In any case, spoken language in this book needs to be reasonably terse and punchy.
5. Where I want to use idioms resembling those of the historical period, I can alter them for my purposes. I love phrases like “in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war” (2 Samuel 11:1). My narrator sees things from a different perspective to the writer of this phrase, and will put a different interpretation on the world around her.
6. In this particular project I do not need to concern myself with linguistic details of accents or swearing, but I am interested in riddles, memory aids, parallelisms, repetition and multiple meanings. I am keen on close readings of texts and want my work in progress to unlock beautiful linguistic details for readers. The form, as much as the content, is all part of this artistic and creative experiment.
7. I could draw entirely on my own experience and memories, making it an utterly self-absorbed and painfully autobiographical tale, but we all know that is not a clever solution. My characters must be absorbing and irritating in their own right. Perhaps they have no children. Or many children. Or six toes. Or they wake before dawn. I do not identify easily with these things, but I can use observation and imagination to fill in the gaps in my experience. I can listen to those who know and keep learning.
8. My story is based on characters you can read about in the Old Testament, and it is not for me to tell you whether they were real or not. Make your own mind up on that. However, I made the conscious decision at the beginning of the writing process that I could not use a living person’s story. I value people too much to take real experiences of pain or loss and bastardise them into something I could assert was new. Elements of my story could look familiar to some who know me, but they may only be included if the experiences are not unique to individuals and families. Plot detail must be based on the text I am working to or its time period, or be original material inspired and created in the process. Many of my elements come by merging a couple of ideas together or by taking a thought for a walk. They arrive when I least expect them and need noting down before they walk off again without saying goodbye. Some of the best ideas come utterly uninvited but still stand the tests of rewriting.
9. This exercise is not about therapeutically working through a set of my own emotions (I’ve already done that) but about finding ways to express truth – using story. Healing truth. It would be rather silly therefore to create wounds in the process. When the time comes, I want to run the manuscript past people whose own experiences may come close to those I am writing about, because they will resonate the closest and can tell me where I am wrong.
Names and Naming
10. Some of the characters have names straight out of the Old Testament text I am working to (one is altered deliberately, with a shortening).
11. All names have to be appropriate for the time period, so no Jacks or Kates. Some of the names around at the time happen to coincide with names of people I know or are related to (including my mum). Where I want to use a name which happens also to be a name of a contact, I need to be wise to how it could be interpreted.
12. There is a case for inventing names – I’ve researched naming patterns in the Old Testament and the results are fascinating. I could use animal names, place names or word names for new characters and not break my own rules. I could even use the OT patterns of names closely tied with their characters’ stories if I felt that was helpful. I could translate all the names into their English equivalents (for example, Deborah: Bee), but I have decided that would not necessarily make things easier for the reader.
So I hope you will be pleased to hear that you won’t find yourself in my story. You should find truths which apply to many people and these elements are part of what makes a story gripping and dramatic. In fact, I hope you will find elements which do resonate, as I believe that identifying common experiences can help unite and heal.
I love this: so intelligent! I so agree with this “I value people too much to take real experiences of pain or loss and bastardise them into something I could assert was new.” Absolutely. Great post!
Thank you- still contemplating ethics but it is a rich subject.