Monday, May 4, 2015

On effectively disguising characters


Who are you calling a cow?

Jenny Glazebrook


Some people have a natural ability to make up characters from scratch; characters who are believable. People have asked me how I make my characters seem real. How do I make them complex and rounded?

The truth is, they are real. Every one of my works of fiction has begun with someone I know. Even my supporting characters are based on someone I know. Maybe that's because I don't have enough imagination or maybe it's because I have a good memory. Whatever the reason, it is a technique that has worked for me.

However, early in my writing journey I learned how dangerous this technique can be. If your disguise is not strong enough, you could offend and hurt someone.
Like the girl I called a cow.
Really. 
Jersey, to be precise.
Thankfully my editor at the time moved in the same circles I did and he picked it up. He said, 'Jenny do you realise you have called Hannah (let’s call her Hannah because I'm not going to reveal her true identity to anyone else) a cow in this novel?'
I gave him that ‘Did you drink too much Coke whilst editing my book?' kind of look.
'No, really. The character you've named Jersey. She's Hannah, isn't she?'
It was a statement, not a question. My hand flew to my mouth as I realised what I had done. I thought I had made up a good backstory to explain why the character had such an unusual name, but it hadn't been enough. My editor grinned; he seemed to enjoy the whole thing. 'It's okay,' he said. 'I agree Hannah is a cow. But maybe you should change her character's name or disguise her better.'
I don't think I really called her Jersey to get revenge, but it made me think.

Have you seen those cartoons that say something like, 'I am a writer so choose your words carefully or I will kill you off in my next novel.'? Or 'No, I'm not upset with you. I'm just working out what dastardly things I can do to you in my story.'
I laughed the first time I read one of these clever sayings, never dreaming I would do such a thing, let alone realising I had subconsciously done it.

So how have I learned to disguise characters effectively and keep up my appearance of being a lovely person who thinks badly of no living person?
I work out what it is about that person I want or need in my novel. I work out the core of who they are; the essence of their character. That part I hold tightly. It never wavers. Everything else is changed.

For example, if I need someone who is a bully, such as Rod in Nobody Hugs Rod Green, I use the bully's real life words, actions and motivation but I change everything else: name, appearance, siblings, financial status, background, career, interests, parents – anything non-essential.
It can be fun.

In creating these characters, I also imagine why they might be the way they are. Why is the bully a bully? Is it nurture or nature? What has led him or her to this point in their lives and caused their actions and reactions? Making a character complete in this way and making up their whole story in my mind gives them depth when they come out on the page.

My character, Rod Green, is actually a combination of three people; there were lots of bullies in my class at school. Rolling them all into one made a complex, effective bully who made lots of smart comments.

In this novel, Rod bashes his head against a wall in anguish when his father takes his own life. One of the real life Rod Greens bashed his head on a give way sign when his long-time girlfriend dumped him. Until I wrote this, nobody would have linked the two. They look too different; their situations are too different. But the anguish and the passion of the character are the same.

I'm not game to give you any more detailed examples in case someone like my previous editor or even worse, one of the antagonists in my novels, works out who I'm talking about. So the rest will remain completely disguised. I hope.

Before you think badly of me, I should reassure you that using Rod Green was not revenge on the bullies in my class.
Truly.
Not consciously, anyway.

 


Jenny is the wife of Rob Glazebrook and the mother of Micah, Merridy, Clarity and Amelia. They live in the country town of Gundagai with lots of pets. Jenny is the author of 4 published novels with the final 3 of her Aussie Sky Series due out this year. Jenny enjoys inspirational speaking, and is passionate about sharing her writing knowledge and experience and encouraging others in their walk with Jesus. To find out more about her and her books, go to www.jennyglazebrook.com


19 comments:

  1. Hi Jenny
    Thanks for an amusing and insightful post. What a great thing to have a savvy editor :)

    All my characters are drawn straight from my imagination though I'm sure I draw from my experience of people (and from myself) to bring them to life. I think making them complex with strengths and weaknesses, wants, emotions,interests, triumphs and tragedies helps round them out. However, I can see how using that drawing them from life can give a ready-made complexity - but also the need to disguise.

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    1. I need to learn your skill of drawing them straight from the imagination. It would be a lot safer : )

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  2. Love your honesty here, Jenny--and your humour! But another reason I laughed as I read your blog was that I identified so easily with your comments as I have been down this road quite a few times with my own novels! I remember how, with one novel of mine in particular, lots of my friends in a church where we had ministered were convinced they knew who the characters were and that they were from that church. In reality, some of them at least were compilations I people I had known over the years who had impacted me in both positive and negative ways. What fun we can have in writing novels!

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    1. I had a bit of a laugh imagining the people in your church gathering around to guess who your characters were. I don't have that trouble yet as quite a significant number in my church believe fiction isn't helpful. I'm just waiting on God to change that, and then I might have to be even more careful with my characters : )

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  3. I wrote a short story once where the antagonist was based on someone who had bullied me in the workplace. I just used the heart of the character and adapted the actions to the situation in the novel; everything else was different. It was a very cathartic experience and enabled me to let go of a lot of the hurt the real person had caused me. It was a good short story too. So - while we need to be careful - I think using real people as the starting place for our characters can be very worthwhile :D.

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    1. Wow, yes, definitely worthwhile Sue! Very likely your story struck a chord with others in similar situations and was healing for them, too.

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  4. Hi Jenny, I've heard of other authors who weren't lucky enough to have clued-up editors like yours, and did cause fractured friendships and family splits for that very reason. Worse still are those who weren't basing their characters on real people at all, but the friends (or former friends) assumed they were. I agree, we need to tread very carefully here :)

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  5. Scary! I guess if our characters are realistic in any way we are in danger of hitting too close to home for some people, whether or not it's intentional.

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  6. Thank you Jenny, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. For some reason, the other day I wondered if fiction books are actually based on real life situations and characters. I've always enjoyed reading 'true stories' and all of a sudden, it struck me that a lot of fiction may well be disguised 'true stories.' I think you just answered a few questions for me. Thank you for an entertaining read.

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    1. Thanks Mimi. You'll never read fiction the same way again ; )

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  7. Great post Jenny. I loved your humour. I think we've all known one of those Jerseys! But it is a challenge using our experiences in fiction. You've given some great tips there. Maybe you could set one of your novels at a Christian Writer's Conference, so that we can all guess who the characters are ;)

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    1. Lol, Nola. And if I have a character who appears poised, gracious and quietly thoughtful but then it is discovered she is also a mischief maker who stirs everyone up, do you think anyone will guess who it might be? (Of course she is still poised, gracious and thoughtful, but there is just this something in her sense of humour that enjoys causing trouble.) I could call her Deb or Andrea to really throw people : D

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  8. Wonderful post, Jenny! Hah, been there, done that. It's unavoidable if we're writing about members of the human race. But as you say, giving them a disguise makes all the difference. I rolled two older ladies with rather spiteful characteristics and squished them into one of my characters. As they'd passed on I had the freedom to write with enthusiasm. Yes, it's cathartic and also rings true. Jesus used story-telling to great advantage. If we can do the same without being obvious, our readers will identify with either/or characters or situations.

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    1. I love that Jesus is a story teller! Even though He was subtle, there were still those who 'got' His hidden meanings and were deeply offended - like with the parable of the vineyard owner's son. Maybe it's all a part of walking in His steps?

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    2. I reckon we as storytellers can do just that, Jenny!

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  9. Yep... that could be awkward, although jersey cows do have rather friendly faces. ;) The positive side of creating realistic characters with realistic flaws and realistic hopes is that, regardless of the source material, they have great power to impact readers. Identifying with a character (even if it's a bit of a shock) can be a good thing too.

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    1. I agree. I actually like jersey cows and the girl I wrote about did seem rather sweet and pretty ... at first. And yes, the more realistic the characters, the more likely they will resonate with someone and have a positive impact.

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  10. Ha! Good advice! I was commissioned to write a factional story (part fiction part fact, like a folk story) for my home town for their 150 celebrations. I had a ball using yarns and stories told to me, but I had a fictional character whose shenanigans were all fiction. When the book was released, everyone in the town were saying my character was the boy who used to live there - a kid I'd never heard of, but apparently my character was like him. And then there was the town busybody. I had to make her a fictional character too, but she was a composite of a number of busybodies I knew. Nobody dared draw a likeness. They all quietly accepted she was part of the fictional cast. It was a great experience, but I wouldn't do it again. I had to have each real person I used read any part they featured, and had to have them sign a release. A couple wouldn't sign, and I had to change them to fictional characters. What a job. Make up characters are easier to work with, but I agree, there are bits and pieces of people I know pop up here and there all the time.

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    1. Sounds very challenging but fun. Is the book available to everyone? I'd love to read it.

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