Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Lessons from History

Some characters are a lot easier to work with on paper than others. I'm quite lucky in those terms; normally I'll have a pretty clear idea of a character before I start the story, and once I start working with them on paper, everything else falls fairly neatly into place contextually.

But sometimes that doesn't happen. And that's when things get frustrating.

I'm betting we've all run into at least one character that blatantly refuses to comply with us. You know what you want them to be like, but for some reason, every time you start using them, they won't do it. Pinning down their personality is about as successful as nailing jelly to a tree, and it shows in the writing. They are inconsistent, they are unrealistic, and they are thoroughly ruining your story.

Next to full-on Writer's Block, I'd say inconsistent and ill-defined characters are my biggest writerly hiccup.

The lead character of my 2011 NaNoWriMo project, the infamous Vidal, is a prime example. Sometimes he was quiet and unassuming, and sometimes he would be spitting so many insults across the room that it was a wonder he wasn't stabbed. He would go from calm, cool and deceptive to an insecure, hot-headed wreck in the space of a page. And in a story based entirely around his deceptive abilities, it was a recipe for disaster.

It only got worse when I realised he was following my moods, my rules, and my idea of morality. Heck, he was even talking like me. I didn't want a self-insert. I wanted an independent personality for people to love, hate and silently wish to hi-five in his more devious moments.

So where did I look to solve the problem? My history textbook.

People in history have been copying the performance and strategies of others since the Romans embarked on their quest for world domination, and there are so many wonderful personalities and catastrophes roaming about that inspiration is endless. For Vidal, I found the perfect match - the infamous Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII's first minister and iron-handed ruler of France. For a character  who would later become known as the Kingmaker himself, Richelieu was a wonderful reference point for character and strategy in a dangerous political environment. Vidal's own namesake, writer Gore Vidal, was also a massive help when it came to working out how my canny plotter's idea of humour worked (which is more important than it sounds in the context of the actual story).

And so it went on, looking at similar historical situations and political systems to get myself out of the puddle of I-Have-No-Idea-How-To-Do-This into which the story had sunk.

Of course, I'm not saying that one should simply go around and mash up bits of history in order to create a character - I don't know if plagiarised personalities are punishable, but trying to throw in too many elements to create an ideal character for your story certainly runs the risk of simply making them overcomplicated, and even more prone to schizophrenia than they were before.

However, especially if you're writing a story that is set in a time or place you do not have any direct knowledge or experience of, historical reference is a fantastic way of making it easier to bring a place to life. Got a tough feisty farm girl about to embark on a quest? Why not get some tips from Joan of Arc, or one of the Medici girls? What about that priest who's sure there's something wrong in his institution? Martin Luther might be a good starting point there.

You don't even have to use famous figures from any period of history, either. Why not imbue your character with bits of personality from your grumpy aunt, your caustic grandfather, or your eccentric newt-collecting cousin?

After all - people are just as weird in real life as they are in books.

What about you, readers? Have you had similar problems with inconsisten characters? How do you resolve problems like that? Has anyone else followed the path of borrowing traits from others to help pin your little darlings down? Or do you have a different strategy altogether?

~ Charley R


  1. My character *Micah* gives me a headache. Just keeping him IN character. Ack. Headache is an understatement. If he wasn't so darn needed, I might throw him on a one-way trip into a black hole and order an attitude adjustment. Or worse (knock him off, but shh...after my post yesterday, and mime's characters ralleying for human rights, we're lying low in our household. Safety for authors! Heeeelp.)

    I like the idea of taking snippets from history characters. Never thought of it. But (without outright copying everything about them) it's a viable source. :D

    1. Don't even mention Micah to the literary world--they might pick him for the Mockingjay after all you've done to him. Like squashing him with a mast. (You gotta love him) :)

      That's quite a good idea about the historical characters. I have one who is... fickle. He won't decide what kind of a person he wants to be. Bad Erastus, Bad! :)

    2. Heh, don't worry, Vidal was just like that - I think he did it to spite me, knowing how evil I planned to be once I got hold of him. A little historical adjustment and he's much more compliant.

      And for both of you . . . you're authors! You have the powers of your own imagination to defend yourselves with! I just wish for weapons and an army and next thing you know I'm having so much fun that their rebellion is more entertainment than threat!

      Goo guns are the best choice for personal weapons, just so you know ;)

    3. Just make sure to get the goo and gund from Cahrley. Her source is the best! :}

  2. Ahhh... James, and perhaps sharon to a lesser extent. But James was the real problem.

    How can a man, who rose to a high rank in an evil General's army, suddenly turn into a coward and be ner to running away when he's brough back to play a part in a ruse?

    I didn't dip into history for my solution though, but I'll put that on the back burner in case I do need it later.

    Instead I started writing from James's perspective, to find out why he was in that army to begin with and what had happened that had changed his allegence.

    What I got was... well a much more believable man, who even scared me a couple times wondering what side he really was on, even though I knew. :}

    1. Working with them more extensively can be helpful, but as Vidal was my narrator I was essentially doing that anyway - and unfortunately he's too blasted complex a character to let me in on his foibles that way. Thanks to a certain sneaky cardinal, however, I now have a better insight into what he's up to. And we're both having a lot more fun because of it, because I can now make his plans more cunning due to greater research and knowledge into powerplay and politics. Everone wins . . . apart from the people who don't.

  3. Unfortunately, because I write urban fantasy it's kind of hard to take people from history, as my characters are all modern. And magical. Hmm. I could see it working with, say, Cormac, but he's so heavily based on mythology I don't need any more people to muddle into his personality! Ehehe :D

    People always ask me whether characters or plot come to me first... I don't think it's either. I usually just have an idea. Sometimes a whole story, sometimes not. It's a long time since I wrote a first draft and I don't really remember how I usually start. Where do the characters come from? Why are they in my mind?

    1. Haha, I suppose. Though even in a modern setting you could borrow parallels from other famous modern types if you needed to. Admittedly I needed a blueprint because I was dealing with a political historical setting, hence half the problem, but heydiho, to each their own genre.

      Indeed . . . my characters always come first but I have no idea how they do that xD

    2. I often have a ... a phrase I think. A little idea. A nugget of plot. I have no idea with Watching because it's been nearly three years now. I don't know where that came from. With some things, though, it's more conscious, like a little word that catches my interest.

    3. How cool! Though I suppose starting from something so small means the plot is rather hard to has out, non?

  4. I actually don't have this problem. Though my characters are never quite as I thought they'd be when I started thinking about them, they never refuse to work. I just go with the flow they create, and it works pretty well until I want to stick something in that I thought, while plotting, would be cool to write. Then it doesn't work and I have to go in a different direction.

    The problems I've found with trying to copy from my history textbook is that it doesn't give the actual personalities of the famous figures-- it just gives their actions. Even though their actions say a lot about their personality, it often isn't enough to imagine them vividly. If it works for you, though, you've got a much more in-depth textbook.

    1. I just find it easy to infer peoples' personalities (or assumed personalities) from their actions, I guess, so that's why I find them so useful. My textbooks are pretty good, but mostly I was just looking for how an individual would act in a certain situation and comparing and contrasting different actions against the personality of the character in question. It sounds so much more complex than it is, haha.