Friday, January 14

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, January 14, 2011 23 comments
Characters can be found in all sorts of places--our families, friends, acquaintances, strangers on the train--all mixed up with bits and pieces of our own imagination. In other words, every character, even those you base on real people, have some of you in them.

I'll give you an example. The poem below I'd written as a sort of tribute to some of the extraordinary yet ordinary boys whose friendship I'd cherished in childhood.


My friend Gilbert
had the kind of face
you see on milk cartons
on rainy Thursday mornings
that puddle in your brain
without a grain of sense
of purpose but dripdrip drip.

Gil played games
that brought down bullies
to less than larger-than-life
lugs we could look in the eye
and not cringe.

Gil's games
made emperors of roaches
and elf queens of
bucktoothed, freckled girls
that are good at math
and can't sing.

Gil thought thoughts
that entered me like garlic
and permeated blood
and lungs and skin,
reeking and lusty of life,
lingering in the pores
for days.

Laurel J. Webster [pre-married me]
About Such Things 1.2 (Spring 1997)

The name of this fictional friend is of course an homage to Gilbert Blythe from L.M. Montgomery's Green Gables books. Some of the details are bits and pieces of Duane who lived next to the awesome graveyard and Billy who was willing to be Pa from Little House on the Prairie and Brad who still thought forts were cool long after other kids did. These boys were kinder than average--and willing to give anyone a shot at joining the imaginative game of the moment. But to be honest, I was usually the one who came up with most of the ideas when we played. You might say Gilbert is the kid I wish I'd been--imaginative, sure, but also the kind of leader who brings people together by drawing out their best selves gently and naturally.

When you build a hero or a villain, you will (mostly unconsciously) add pieces of yourself to the mix--what you admire and aspire to, or what you find most loathsome, or even parts of yourself you most want to heal or change. This is the aspect of writing that some consider therapeutic or even mystical.

What aspects of yourself have you been surprised to discover coming out in your characters?
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  1. It's interesting seeing where you got your character ideas from. I do the same thing, a little of this and that and here and there. And yes, traits and flaws of my own always emerge, even in a small way.
    Have a great weekend,

  2. I actually base my characters on people I know. I use to use myself when I was younger, now I don't like including anything of myself. Every character I have created now is based on a friend or acquaintance of mine, but names changed of course.

  3. I wrote a short story this morning, about a fisherman I once saw. In the story there was a couple eating at a restaurant, watching this solitary man. And they were fighting. It wasn't about me. About my husband, but I did wonder how he would feel reading it. Isn't it true, we leak into our stories no matter how hard we try to stay out.

  4. I'm not going to answer the question about what parts of me come out in my writing, 'cause you already know that. :)

    *wanders off, whistling innocently*

  5. I love this poem by the way, especially the dripdrip drip. And the way Gil can tell stories to change people. As far as finding myself in my stories. I've been surprised at how many different of me there seem to be. Especially parts I don't show anyone else.

  6. I love the poem. :)

    Probably one of the major aspects that come from me and end up in my characters is the fact a lot of them are loners, or they're more the quiet and keep-to-themselves type; I'm an introvert.

  7. Wonderful, true post; thank you. The poem is gorgeous!
    I didn't notice what of myself went into characters until my critique partners pointed it out to me...they realized that almost all my stories, at least at their conception, involve a character making rash judgments that she/he must in time learn to see past... Unfortunately, that is one of my own failings...but I guess I know the trials and drama of overcoming it!

  8. I struggle not to make my characters like me (because I think I'm kind of boring), though it's hard not to put in things that I've experienced.

    I like to collect stories from people I know or have read about so at least in my mind I can say, "yes, a real person would actually do this."

    Oh, and I just read AOGG this year, so your Gilbert Bylthe reference made me smile.

  9. There is some of me, or some of someone I know, or have known, in every character I write. I think in incorporating bits of them, and exorcising their demons, I come to know myself better. And, I've been known to take revenge on people quietly, secretly, through my writing. Muhwahahaha!

  10. I'm not one to over analyze my characters (or myself for that matter) but I know that a bit of me shows up in my characters. However, a whole of more of my teen daughter shows up now that I write YA!

  11. Great poem. I make most of my characters extremely loyal.

  12. My husband always points out the bits of me in all my characters. It's kindof fun to see from the outside persective (which I don't get usually!).

    And *sigh* for Gilbert Blythe. Definitely one of my childhood crushes. :)

  13. My characters are truly fictional beings. I don't use real-life models. However, I know that my view of the world comes through my characters, even when they're in vastly different story settings.
    I've been knocked around by life and had to take care of myself a number of times, so that often comes through my characters. But that's a useful quality, especially in fantasy.

  14. I'm a great observer, so the personalities I put down on paper feel tangible and realistic. My traits definitely sneak in. Sometimes what I write surprises me.

  15. Loved Gilbert Blythe! :)

    I don't use real folks as the basis of my characters, but the character traits I admire and hate show up a lot. My villains are usually liars and often heavy drinkers. My good guys are always honest and hard working. :)

  16. Karen: When I was writing this piece, I can't say I was particularly aware of my sources. It's something I usually only see in retrospect.

    Kindros: I tend to think all my characters are almost purely my imagination, which in truth means they contain a very odd amalgam of memory, observation and my own values.

    JD: Exactly. When our imagination is engaged in creation, we're going to pour our own personal meanings into things we observe.

    Simon: LOL. I'm not going to touch that one. :-)

  17. Angela: Thanks. Glad you liked it. I'm regularly surprised by the odd stuff that comes out of me, too.

    GE: Thanks. Interesting that this aspect appears a lot. I haven't yet seen a pattern among my characters.

    Lisa: Interesting. I like to make most of the externals of my characters unlike me, but some of me always slips in there, as you say. Real emotion comes best from our real experiences.

    Nicole: I know just what you mean--how helping these imaginary people somehow helps me. Revenge writing is fascinating, not something I've done consciously. I think. :-)

  18. Elle: This piece is once many have thought was purely autobiographical, which got me thinking about how it is my characters actually come to life.

    Susan: Thanks. Mine tend to be very analytical. :-)

    Janet: I didn't discover Gil till my 20s. He's quite swoon-worthy though. My hubby is apt to point out my unseen traits in my work too. Funny.

  19. Tricia: I prefer always having purely fictional characters, too. But when I look closely at my work, I definitely see my life experiences shaping things just the same.

    Medeia: My characters surprise me a lot, partly because they seem to show me ideas and traits I don't consciously see in myself, but they have to come from me if they're in my imagination.

    Jemi: Gil is everyone's favorite Canadian fictional heartthrob. :-) Those values shaping your work make it uniquely yours, right?

  20. Well traits of myself began coming out in my main character without me realizing. I began writing because it was therapeutic, and then I realized much of myself was embedded deeply into the characters I created. If you look at what happened in my life when I began writing and paralleled it with my story....totally makes sense. My main character's main villiian is herself, really. That pretty much sums up 2009 for my life. :)

  21. I'm sure my sense of humor - can't help that. Some of my fears. I love Gilbert Blythe.

  22. Ariel: I think sometimes the therapeutic pull is strongest when we're least conscious of it.

    Laura: My own warped humor is always peppering my pages too. These are things that make your voice unique.