Character Development and the Influential Novels of my Life Pt 2

First things first – I was informed that this is my 100th post. Worthy of celebrating, I think. Hmmm…I’ll have to figure out something to do next week, when the brain isn’t leaking out the ears.

Okay, so let’s pick up where we left off yesterday, shall we? I’m ready to finally talk about my method of creating characters and how I get to know them better. Here’s the funny thing…a lot of it is drawn from a limited experience of tabletop role playing games. I played a short campaign in my Sophomore year of college (Star Wars, not Dungeons and Dragons, as if one were dorkier than the other), and after I got over the initial shock of realizing that this was basically just acting with a formalized set of rules, I saw the potential for what it could mean for creating characters. Of course, I was also mystified that GMs would go to all the trouble of creating elaborate story lines – story lines that could be used in short stories or novels – and keep them restricted to these small groups. Why not take all that creative output and put it toward something that could really make a difference? I have to confess that I still don’t fully grasp it, but I can at least understand the fun that people derive from the process.

But the important thing here is the characters – those amazing, difficult, hard-to-pin-down characters. Where once I viewed characters as a nuisance, I pretty much rejoice in their humanity. It’s a lot of fun to work with a “real” character. But how to get there? Here’s my process.

  1. Imagine a given actor in the plot that you’ve devised. Seriously. Matty in Corridors of the Dead started out imagining Natalie Portman as a punk rock girl. This gave way to a different view of the character entirely, but trying out these different approaches within the plot can give you some ideas that you never thought possible. How about Liam Neeson as a man pursued by a stalker? Jason Alexander as an action hero (well, trying to be one)? These are ideas that led to some very interesting character and plot possibilities for me. Eventually, you have to settle on one that presents the most story possibilities. Once you’ve gotten that actor “archetype” nailed down, take that archetype to step 2.
  2. Interview the Character. Imagine yourself in a room with that character. Just you and a tape recorder. Imagine the questions you want to ask them. You may jot down the answers, you may not – I typically don’t, as I find it helps more to internalize the character’s speech patterns and the actual answers are secondary. Those answers may come in handy later in the story, however.
  3. Fill out a Character Sheet. Remember what I said about roleplaying games? This is the place where it comes in handy. Height and weight are useful, but you also need to be answering key questions about psychology. Relationship with parents? Formative sexual experiences? Favorite music, movies, books, etc.? Whatever you think is relevant. I have my own sheet template that I use, but I don’t have it handy at the moment. I’ll post it when I get a chance.
That’s pretty much it – at this point I have a solid idea of the character and usually don’t need to refer back to too many of these things, but the process has internalized enough of the characters that I can call them forth. I personally think there’s a deep connection between writing and acting, another passion of mine. In the few chances I’ve gotten to act, I’ve used similar tricks to get into character. Frankly, I’m surprised there’s not more crossover.
Now, on to Part 2. These are the books of our lives…

4. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I have had a lifelong love of learning, even if I didn’t favor the methods that schools used to teach me (and still don’t) – I’m a self-driven learner, and do just fine that way. So it was only natural that after getting into the Beat Writers, and especially Kerouac, that I understand the genesis of the Beats’ worldview. I dug into Kerouac’s background and discovered his influences, along with their influences. I’ve mentioned it on this site before. It was an attempt to map Kerouac’s literary DNA. When I hit Hermann Hesse, I found a point of view that resonated with me, and represented the clearest map for the Beat philosophy. Steppenwolf was the first Hesse novel that I dug into, and I’m not sure that I can convey how very closely it matched my worldview at the time. The main character’s view of the world was so very close to how I felt at the time – cloistered and dedicated to study – that I couldn’t help but fall in love. I’ve moved on since then, but this book is still my favorite in Hesse’s bibliography, and highly influential on my works.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a journalist. I know, dodged a bullet there, right? This period began well before I entered my “beat period”, but continued even after I had left college. I had visions of the traditional journalist life, and once I left college, I kind of figured that was dead. Then I discovered Hunter S. Thompson, right in the middle of my Beat period (which also coincided with some fairly heavy recreational drug use). Yeah, talk about kindred spirits. I immediately sought to ape his style as do most young writers who discover Thompson, and it finally stirred up my desire to run off, drive across the country, and document my drug-addled experiences. Not exactly original, but I was already a young man who romanticized damage, so there was a lot of romance to the idea. Ultimately, I ended up choosing a different path (one that involved a lot less self-destruction), but this book will always stand as an icon in my life.


6. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I spent the last few months of 1998 in South Africa, an attempt to cast off the bonds of what I saw as a wasted life back here in the States as I tried to work out a relationship with the woman who would become my first wife. Yeah, she was South African, and we met online during that incredibly damaged period of my life, so the idea of moving to a new culture and discovering it was very appealing to me.  I mean, I grew up in Small-Town America. The concept was mind-blowing! So I packed up three suitcases, the remains of my life, to go there. I also picked up a handful of books to accompany me, as I knew I would have no job there. This book was one of them. I had no idea how it would change my outlook on fiction, and it’s only really settled in for me in the last few years that this book even was influential for me. A book of paranoia and the concept of fiction becoming reality, I can see that it’s driving a lot of the ideas behind Entanglements for me, and has driven me toward similar concepts that involve bringing real-life mythology (even urban mythology) to storytelling. A sneaky, slow-burner of an influence.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the last four, and some of them really surprised me…

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  1. Pingback: Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (Ballantine Books, 1990 (First published Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri Bompiani, 1988) {Translated from Italian by William Weaver} | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

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