Characters or caricatures? Sometimes, it’s not hard to tell when a character stops being a vital, living figment of the author’s imagination and becomes a caricature of itself.
One thing I do to try to prevent cartoonish stereotypes is a background check on the main characters. The Character Police (inside my head) do a thorough look-see into the life of the protagonist.
When was he born? What did his parents do? Was he a good kid or a brat? As a teenager, did he have a girlfriend or was he too shy? Did he run with the bad boys, or was he part of the geeky crowd? Did he skip school to see Felix the Cat and Death Race 2000? (oops, no, that was me).
Characters take shape from composites of actual people who have wandered in and out of the author’s life, from the author’s own experiences, and from world events in general. In a way, an author is like Dr. Frankenstein, piecing a bit of this person here and a bit of that person there until the fully developed character springs into life.
Some of the information I “find out” will end up as a back story at some point in my novel. A lot, however, will not; it will only be used to help develop the final draft of the character.
It’s easy to typecast the lead in a book. It’s much harder to have the main character stand out while still making him believable.
For the protagonist in my novel “False Positive,” the Character Police found out the following:
Joe Daniels was born in 1968. His mother was a craftswoman and he never knew his father – his mother told him he had died in the service and the reader can surmise he was in the Vietnam War. His mother never remarried.
As a young boy, Joe had the uncanny ability to remember everything. This caused problems with adults. Joe would point out, verbatim, contradictory statements adults had made.
Aside from his extraordinary memory, Joe was a typical kid. He rode bikes and had typical childhood adventures with his friends. He was an average sports player.
He mutated from a happy boy to a slightly moody teenager. He listened to music his mother didn’t like and started smoking cigarettes behind the shed (he quit when a girl he really liked told him his breath smelled like an ashtray).
Oh, and yes, Joe did play hooky a few times during high school. He skipped school on three occasions to see Porky’s, Scarface, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
There are many other aspects to Joe’s early life that helped to shape him into the character he became as an adult. The creation of the adult Joe is from the parts of his past. Because he has a “real” history, his character has substance.
Sometimes, I see a little too much of myself in a character’s personality or actions. Sometimes, I smack myself on the forehead when something I’ve written is a little too close to my own life, knowing full well my family and friends will recognize me (after all, my mother thinks I went to Art Day in tenth grade when I really went to see that dirty Felix movie).
It is exhausting when you delve deep into a character’s psyche. As the creator of Joe, I live his life and mine. Even when I’m doing other things, Joe is not far from my mind.
I try to create my characters as living, breathing personalities with pasts that influence their adult lives. Bits and pieces of myself and others I’ve known are in the people in my books. When I look at what I’ve created, I’m a little scared and, at the same time, exhilarated. In the words of Dr. F., it’s alive, it’s alive!
J J Dare is the author of “False Positive,” the first novel in the Joe Daniels’ trilogy.