Character Development: Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

RJBlain-InquisitorCoverArt_rev075With the title of this post, I've probably made a few people twitch. How is character development related to the concept of art imitating life when life is imitating art?

People do that. Society creates art that imitates life to make it real, and in reaction to someone's art, those people in turn imitate the art created by someone else. Sometimes the art is a song, a lyric relevant to life, something that promotes change. Sometimes the art is a painting that captures a feeling, but also promotes change. Sometimes it is a book, which in turn promotes change.

And when change is promoted, life begins to imitate the art that the change originated from.

Writers will often talk about their characters like they are living, breathing people who make decisions of their own.

Sometimes I talk about the decision-making process of my characters.

Time to offend at least a few of you: Your characters are figments of your imagination. They are art imitating life. Get over it (and yourself) and accept that your characters are creations of your imagination. Go ahead and call your imagination your muse if that makes you feel better, but the only one really responsible for your characters, and their actions, is you.

You are using art to imitate life, and in the process, as a result of cultural influences, you are life imitating art, be it in the form of music, movies, television, or literature.

Because your characters are not actually voices in your head, but the product of your imagination, you can control what they do, how they do it, when they do it, and justify every last choice they make. By saying that ‘your characters do what they want,' you are also saying that you have no control over your writing, your art, your creativity, or your story.

You do. That's just the sad truth. You don't have a magical man in your head doing the work for you. You are.

And maybe that's why your character isn't doing what you need because you're letting them ‘do what they want,' which is just a pretty way of saying you're not thinking through what your characters are doing.

When I say a character is not doing what I anticipated, that is because I, as an author, failed at my characterization, and I need to fix it. My character wouldn't do what I originally thought they would. So I made the mistake and I realized it as I was trying to make my character do something someone of that trope type and circumstance wouldn't do.

My characters don't actually talk to me. I just use logic and their emotions to determine what they'd do. I hope that isn't too disappointing. Take comfort in the fact there is a chance I may have looked at someone just like you and realized where my logic was wrong because people who are not me may not act like I think they should.

Yeah, that's quite a bit to wrap your head around. Nutshell: Study people and remind yourself, each and every time your character makes a decision, that they are not you.

When I wrote Inquisitor, I was very deliberate in how I created all of my characters. These were distinctive people with their own personalities. I built every single one of those characters from an accepted trope type. Then I layered on a backstory that makes them unique to them, and adjusted their personalities on the way. I looked at their tropes, their modified personalities, their likes, dislikes, and fears, and I then I made them play by those rules.

But those rules changed each and every time they faced the consequences of their actions. That's character development. That's what you're attempting to accomplish when you write a book with strong, solid characters. And not necessarily strong characters in the sense of overcoming every obstacle, being perfect, or so on. They're strong because they act like people. They are art imitating life.

But they are also life imitating art–and that's because of you, the writer.

You are the linchpin of your characterization.

When trying to learn how to draw real people, artists go out and watch people. Then they draw them. Writers are no different. Really, they aren't. The best writers I've ever met share one thing in common: They are intrigued by real people.

They learn about people. They may not be good with people, but they know a lot about what makes a person tick. They study behavior. They study others. They sit, in their quiet corner, and watch. We call them introverts often enough. We question why an extrovert isn't joining in the party, when they are watching, the gears in their brains turning, wondering why a person made the choice that they did.

They're looking for the agenda of each and every person, calculating, and preparing to turn it into art. Their art. Their novels.

When I wrote Inquisitor, I cared about why my characters made the choices they did. I cared about what lengths a character would go for someone else. I cared about the methods they used to accomplish their goals. Each and every character, no matter how long they were on the scene, had a purpose. A goal. Something driving them. Some did the driving. Others were just in the way, consequential to what the others were doing.

If anything, Inquisitor is the story about how far a woman would go to fight for what she believes in, and in turn, how far others would go for that same woman. Some want her for their own devices. Some just want her. Some just want to protect her.

Some want to remove her from the picture. Some want to be in the pictures she has on her mantle.

But the story involves how many people react to the existence of one woman, and how they react to her. And what they'll do for their own goals that involve her.

I didn't write her to make her strong. I just made her human–or not, as the case often is.

I wanted to create a person with circumstance, so I did. I wanted to create a story about people.

People wrapped in a thriller blanket. And guns. And booms. And death. And some more death. With a side dish of death.

I made people from both ends of the spectrum. Some were hunters. Some were protectors. Some wanted to watch the fallout. Some wanted to be victims. Because in life, there are people who want to be victims… so they are.

I wanted my art to imitate life. Sometimes in the best ways, sometimes in the worst ways.

I find it is easy to write characters when I remember that I am trying to create a person. And when creating a person, the easiest way to approach it is to look at myself and what am capable of. And that's a scary thing, when I think about the types of characters I've written.

I can practically hear people pointing, gasping, and whispering, “Mary Sue!”

No.

Some writers go so far out of the way in their effort to completely remove themselves from their characters that they inevitably leave a blueprint of themselves in the pages. I don't believe it is possible to completely cut yourself out of a novel, or out of a character. All of my characters, somehow, share a trait or two with me, however accidental this sharing of traits is.

Because they are art imitating life–mine. But they aren't me, nor are they the purposeful insertion of me in my writing. They're just the product of my life, my experiences, my observations, and my creativity.

Therefor, it is inevitable that there is something of me in there.

Here is where I tell you that you shouldn't put yourself in your book as a character. Why? Realistically, we don't really make all that good of a read. We're too real.

Now I've gone and opened a can of worms, huh? Yeah. We authors are too real. Our characters are art. They exist because we created them. We can get away with stuff with our characters that real people may not ever be able to cope with. We can put them through the wringer, inflict mental, emotional, and physical damage to them a normal person would crumple under, and readers will bask in the glow of them overcoming challenges–while showing real emotions. While showing that real bit of life in their choices, actions, and ultimate development.

Character development is a pretty way of saying cause and consequence is left intact, and that your characters change as a direct result of their actions… and that they are purposefully making choices, decisions, and actions that impact them and others. They have motivations. They have goals… and they pursue them.

Or they don't, and wish they had.

They're people, but they're people who are art, who imitate life, that in turn is the author's attempt to turn life into art.

Are you stuck on how to build a character? Start small.

Pick a trait.

Then decide what someone with that trait would do in a situation.

Then look at your life, and if you had that trait, how would you deal with that situation?

Don't just have your characters react, though. Reaction isn't characterization. In Inquisitor, I made every event, every little plot device, be a result of what a character did. (Even if that wasn't the result of what the main character did. A character was always a driving force behind the events in the story.)

The character with the best laid plan had the best chance of winning. And that character almost did win.

But that character did not comprehend, understand, or plan for how far someone would go for a friend or a loved one… and that is why they lost.

And in life, that often surprises us.

Writing good characterization is looking at all of the characters, their impact on each other, and getting a feel for just how far they would go to succeed at whatever little scheme or goal they have–even if that goal is survival.

Build your characters bit by bit… and remember that tropes are your friend. If you understand why a trope is a trope, and what makes a trope tick, all you have to do is make the person an individual in that trope type, adding the little things that make them unique.

This is probably not the road map you wanted to making realistic characters.

There isn't one. None of us can tell you how to create your characters, because your characters are all a direct result of your imagination. And we aren't you.

But we know people.

And we sympathize with people we can understand. And that all begins with a trope that you make unique to you.

And do try to put your characters in the lead, in the saddle, driving the story. Because characters who never do anything, and only react to what happens around them, are boring.

We tend to call these real life versions of this person a lot of mean things. We blame them, fault them for making their own bad luck, and we accuse them of being lazy. We tell them to ‘go do something about it!'

When I created Vicky, I asked myself a question about life–about people.

Then I took her, found the trope that fit, and chased after the answer. I gave her life circumstances. I gave her motivations and goals. I gave her something worth living for. I gave her someone worth living for.

For those who have read Inquisitoryou know what happens next.

And I chased after the possibilities. And with each and every character I introduced, I did the same for them, treating each and every one of them like they could become the main character of the story.

Because a story isn't about the life of one character. It never is, unless the character has been locked in a cell without ever having met another person.

And that, in and of itself, is a story all of its own.

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1 comment
somemaid says June 5, 2014

That makes sense. I know that characterisation is something I need to work on in my WIP. Double checking that my characters are all the heroes of their own story and then making sure that slices of those stories interact with the main story in the right way. Some bits are there but others need definite work.

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