Archives for category: Character Creation

Photo Credit: Careful by Wes Peck

I’ve always had the good fortune of knowing people with big personalities, but when I first started writing fiction seriously I refused to allow myself to be inspired by anyone I knew. I was afraid that if I allowed real people to inform my characters they would recognize themselves immediately and object to the way I portrayed them.

From what I hear, it’s a fairly common fear. Even Agatha Christie limited herself to only being inspired by people she’d never spoken to. But I took it even further. No one I’d even scene was allowed to influence a story. When I was working on my thesis novel, it took serious courage to put a programmer who wears a pirate hat in the story after I passed a group of geeky students in pirate hats on the sidewalk.

It’s difficult enough to find enough material to fill a novel when you allow yourself to be inspired by anything, and I quickly found that taking such an extreme stance was unsustainable. Since a good character–one that feels like a person instead of a puppet or a role–is one that we recognize, cutting out personal experience in character building practically condemned me to writing cardboard characters. Getting past that fear is still one of my growing edges, but one of the ways I’ve learned to work around it is to begin the character building process with archetypes rather than real people.

Archetype comes from the Greek for “primitive” and “model,” like the wooden mannequins artists use as models. They are specific enough to give you a rough idea of a character’s role and vague enough to have lots of room for an interesting personality to develop. I find that they make a particularly satisfying place holder in a rough draft.

Building a Catalog of Archetypes

I started working with archetypes when I encountered the Hero’s Journey in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

The hero’s journey is a simplified version of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and contains eight archetypes:

  • Hero
  • Shadow
  • Mentor
  • Herald
  • Threshold guardian
  • Shapeshifter
  • Allies

If you’ve never worked with archetypes before, the Hero’s Journey is a great place to start, but I quickly found it limiting. Not every protagonist is a hero or even a heroine, and I was uncomfortable with the idea that characters exist in relation to the hero. That might be true from the hero’s perspective, true, but good characters are protagonists in their own stories, and I didn’t find room for that in this model.

From there, I moved on to looking for patterns in fairy tales and mythology. When I started looking at characters through this lens, I started to see archetypes everywhere. Jane Eyre is Cinderella in disguise. So many monster in the house movies are just retellings of Hansel and Gretel. The myth of the goddess Inanna is the original model for Girl Underground stories.

The problem with looking for archetypes in stories, especially when looking at modern examples, is that it’s sometimes difficult to see the primitive model under a well-developed character. This is particularly a danger when many writers are inspired by the same model and a single version of an archetype threatens to overwhelm the rough model underneath. (How many mentors look like Gandalf?) Additionally, it is sometimes also difficult to separate a character archetype from an archetypal plot. Who is Cinderalla? She’s the abused girl who ends up a princess, right? But that’s what happened to her. Who is she? She could be anybody. I wanted a model that would help me develop a character’s personality.

For the past few years the best work I’ve done with archetypes has come from studying the Tarot. When most people think of Tarot, they think of someone like T.S. Eliot’s Madame Sosostris telling the future in “The Waste Land,” but scholars have been examining the connections between Tarot and mind for many years. The idea of using a stack of cards to tell the future makes me uncomfortable, but the images in the Tarot draw on the same pool of archetypes that are found in myths, fairy tales, and modern stories, but unlike most stories, a traditional Tarot deck has 78 cards, and once you get 78 of anything you’re almost forced to go past the obvious. Instead of one archetype for a powerful man, there are eight. Instead of one strong woman, there are nine. That kind of diversity encourages me to think more deeply than descriptors like “power hungry.” Is he power hungry like the magician or interested justice like the Emperor? Is she strong because she’s a survivor or because she’s wise?

And best of all the cards have yet to be offended by the way I wrote them in a story.


I have a love/hate relationship with writing advice. I’m an editor. Even though I promise myself every time that THIS post will be the last, I write a lot of writing advice for this blog, and I have a habit when I’m editing my own work of reminding myself of old advice from mentors. But there are times when I’ve really struggled with writing advice, like this essay about “thought” verbs by Chuck Palahniuk.

It’s a fantastic essay, filled with good advice. If you haven’t read it, and you aren’t doing what he advises already, reading this essay and following his advice will probably make you a better writer. When I read it, though, I was about 5000 words into the first draft of my current novel. (Its working title is SIREN.)  At the time, I was pretty sure that it was going to be a novella about a woman who spends thirty days alone on a raft.

Then I read this part of the “thinking” verbs essay:

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering. [Here he gives an example of what it looks like when a worried character isn’t allowed to be alone.] A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

If I had been thinking, I would have remembered Krapp’s Last Tape (video) and Big Two-Hearted River and the monologues in Hamlet. I would have realized that I was probably attempting something difficult, but there are plenty of examples of characters in literature spending lots of time alone without bringing the play or story to its knees. (Now that I have thought about it, my guess is that the intent of the essay was probably to help beginning writers avoid situations where they’d be tempted to hand the reader information instead of allowing them to piece things together for themselves.) At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking, and I was fairly convinced that my book had just been given a death sentence.

Fortunately, I’m married to a guy who shares my love of Beckett, and he could see immediately that I was being absurd and helped me talk it out. My novel survived, and so did the sections where my characters spend a lot of time alone.

It’s tempting at this point to wrap this whole experience up with a moral. (And if I did, I would choose Laura Simm’s “Don’t take your baby to Target.”) But in this case, being exposed to what I perceived as such a major challenge to my work forced me to think more deeply about what it means to be alone.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than a few seconds on 4chan, but ever since I saw Chris Poole’s keynote at SXSW in 2011, I’ve admired what he’s had to say about identity. Recently, I stumbled on this video (video) of his talk at the Web 2.0 Summit in 2011. In the talk, he says that we all have prismatic identities, that we are different in different social contexts. Google and Facebook try to reflect this by allowing you to pick and choose who you share updates with, but he says that it isn’t who you share with that matters but who you share as.

4chan allows users to use anonymity and handles to reflect different facets of their identity, but in real life these identities are often much more fluid. You might see a member of your family act as a husband, a son, a father, and an expert in 16th century Polish philosophers in less than a minute. That’s a really complicated picture, but odds are that person would show different sides at a nightclub or a high school reunion or an academic conference.

Carrying the prism metaphor forward, one would assume that moving between social contexts would be like rotating a crystal. Each context reveals only a few facets of the identity, but when we are alone, freed from social context, we are able to be our true selves and express all of these facets at once.

When I began writing SIREN, I operated from the assumption that when my characters were alone they would reveal their true selves, but when I actually look at what I’ve written, I notice that this isn’t what happens at all.

In the first scene of SIREN, one of the main characters, Azor, speaks to no one, sees no one, and yet he acts like someone moving between social contexts. When he thinks about his family, he puts on the selfish, impatient identity that he has with his family and becomes irritable when he tries a door and finds it locked. When he remembers the school chef, he shows a much more patient and empathic side, and brings breakfast to a friend who is still sleeping in the dorms. In a thousand words, Azor shows very different and sometimes contradictory facets of his identity. I’m less than halfway through the novel, but so far all of my characters act like this. Instead of removing the influence of social context entirely and creating a unified character, being alone only allows them to move freely between these contexts in their minds.

In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that one of the tragedies of the death of a friend is that you not only lose that friend but you lose the qualities in mutual friends that the lost friend brought out. It makes me wonder if the many facets of identity are not just expressed differently in different social contexts but also created by them. If that’s true, the prospect is a bit scary since, as Chris Poole said at the Web 2.0 Summit,  we now have more choices in the toothbrush aisle than we do in social spaces on the web.

For me this raises several questions: What parts of our identities are we missing by spending so much time socializing in a place with only a few contexts? What are the psycho-social consequences of social spaces that bring out only the facets of ourselves that are brought out at home and at work and at the club? What are the consequences of all of this in character creation? Would a character with only one or two social contexts have a flatter identity than one with many interests, communities, and roles?

In any case, I think Chuck Palahniuk is right in that characters should never be alone. The only thing is, I’m not sure fully imagined characters ever really are alone.