8 May 2015

HOW TO WRITE FICTION - Lesson 3: The Composite Method Of Creating Characters

In the last lesson, we talked about basing your fictional characters on the real people in the world around you. Now, our plot is about to thicken. The process is about to become more complex.

It’s usually not enough, you see, to simply pluck people out of real life and set them down in the pages of your story. Even if a character is based on an actual person, it still needs to become a fictional character – something quite different from a true human being. Characters are realistic, and yet they are not quite real.

Therefore, when writing fiction you must create characters. For most writers, much of this act of creation happens before the actual writing of the story begins. If this sounds a bit like homework, well, it is. But usually the payoff is worth the effort.

The Pitfalls of Photo-Copying People

First, let’s look at some reasons why characters need to be fictionalized. (You may do better with your homework if you understand its purpose and necessity).

Truth be told, there are numerous pitfalls to photo-copying people, that is, sticking real people in a story without any fictionalizing. For one thing, you might lose some friends. But that’s not the only reason.

Real people live twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and so much goes on in their lives and inside their minds that it is literally impossible to capture them on paper in a way that is truly realistic. There is simply too much material. Fictional characters require much more focus than people in real life. Otherwise, the readers, not to mention the writer, will get lost.

Besides, it’s difficult – impossible, really – to get inside anyone other than yourself. No matter how well you know someone, you can never be absolutely certain what he or she is thinking and feeling, hoping and fearing. And these are things you, the writer, will want to know about most of your characters.

Consider Jay Gatsby. He’s a total mystery to us at first, and to our narrator, Nick. Gradually we begin to discover what’s beneath the seemingly-impenetrable exterior. In Chapter 6, we learn some of the truth about James Gatz’s humble Midwestern beginnings – a truth that is quite different from the truth Gatsby himself reveals. In a sense, Gatsby is really two people. At the end of this chapter, we gain some insight into Gatsby’s life-altering introduction to Daisy, revealed in the rhapsodic passage beginning "One autumn night ..." We will discover even more about Gatsby in the remaining chapters. If you’re going to base characters on the real people in your life, you’re going to have to know them at least as well as Fitzgerald knows Gatsby. And most of us don’t know many people that well.

But, you’re thinking at this point, "I know somebody better than Fitzgerald knew Gatsby. I know me. I’ll base a character, lots of characters, on myself. That’ll be easy!"

Really? Do you think you know yourself all that well? Well, maybe. But think about it. Your knowledge of yourself is quite literally subjective. That is, you only know yourself from within and can’t see yourself from the outside. You literally have no objectivity regarding who you are and what you do. To write wholly autobiographical fiction is therefore a very dicey undertaking. This is something we see time and again in the fiction classes at Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Characters that beginning writers base on themselves are almost always the thinnest on the page, the least clear and convincing.

Paradoxically, it’s also possible to know certain people too well. In writing about ourselves, or our relatives and best friends, we tend to take all sorts of information for granted. You know that your father moved you and your brother and sister back and forth between Orlando and Anaheim when you were kids, because he was obsessed with Mickey Mouse. But you may know it so deeply you forget to tell the readers.

Finally, a character based on an individual close to the writer is also unlikely to surprise the writer and delight the reader. Some of the best things in stories happen when the characters take the writer in unexpected directions. Characters that are photo-copied from life tend to do exactly what the original people did in reality. They remain faithful to the facts rather than going where the story wants or needs to go.

Remember the Mystery Woman from the last lecture – the one who appears at your bus stop each day with a different book in her hands? What if, instead of being a stranger, she were your officemate and casual friend? Then you would know why she had a different book every day. You would know that she took a speed-reading course once, and can now devour a 350-page novel in an hour or so.

If you stuck too closely to who that person really was, it’s unlikely that you would invent the delightful scenario we created, in which a woman from out of town pretends to read a different book each day in hopes of meeting a stranger. It might not occur to you to make this person anything other than a speed-reader. By fictionalizing the person, you open up a myriad of interesting possibilities from which you may choose.

Complicated, isn’t it? Not really. Here’s a relatively simple solution to all the problems discussed above.

Pieces of People 

Perhaps the most effective way to make the transition from real people to fictional characters is to create composites. This method does two things: 1) It forces you to fictionalize, and 2) It allows you to mold people to fit the specific needs of your story.

Using the composite method, you create characters who are actually amalgams of several people you know, or know of. You put together pieces of various people, in much the same way that Dr. Frankenstein created his famous monster.

For example, you may create a character who has the personality of your best friend and the looks of your cousin. Maybe he talks like your boss, smells like your father, and eats like a slob you saw in a diner last week. Note that all of this is inspired by real people in the world around you; that hasn’t changed. It’s just that the way we’re using our raw material is more involved, more active, more creative – and ultimately it will serve the story better.

We talked about how Jay Gatsby’s situation bears some similarities to that of the young F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby is a man without much status who falls in love with a socially prominent Southern belle, and focuses all of his energy on transforming himself into someone he thinks will be worthy of her love

But that’s not the whole story of Jay Gatsby’s creation.

Scholars have discovered that a man named Max von Gerlach once signed a note to Fitzgerald that featured the phrase "old sport." This von Gerlach had a bunch of conflicting identities; he was variously thought to be a baron, a bootlegger, and a car dealer in Flushing, Queens – the location of The Great Gatsby’s "Valley of Ashes." Sound familiar? Many believe that Fitzgerald met von Gerlach in Great Neck, Long Island, sometime during the early Twenties. (Great Neck and Manhasset Neck are thought to be the West and East Eggs of the novel.)

In other words, Fitzgerald combined an autobiographical situation with some of the characteristics of a colorful man whom he seems not to have known all that well. He probably also added details drawn from other people he’d known or observed. The result: a brilliant character.

Or think of Daisy. We said earlier that she was probably inspired by Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda. However, there are things about Daisy that are not true of Zelda. Though socially prominent, Zelda’s family was not, in fact, rich. Daisy is very, very rich – so rich that even her voice is "full of money." Mrs. Fitzgerald hailed from Alabama, not Kentucky. Nor did she cheat on her husband with a man like Gatsby or run over her husband’s lover in a car. Those details probably came from other human behavior witnessed by the writer.

Or think of the Mystery Woman. Perhaps you have taken a piece of her from someone you work with – the fact that she reads a different book every day. But the other pieces of her came from elsewhere. Perhaps your brother is extremely shy and so you borrow that trait from him. Perhaps your college roommate was from Kansas and so you borrow that trait from her. By playing Dr. Frankenstein and making a composite, you have created a terrific fictional character that is willing to go wherever your imagination wants her to go. Who knows what she will do?

On a final note, consider this. Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, sticks very closely to the facts of Fitzgerald’s life, much more so than The Great Gatsby. Though This Side of Paradise was a big success when first released, it is nowhere near as good a novel as The Great Gatsby. And the characters in it are not nearly as memorable as Gatsby, Daisy, Nick, and the rest of this marvelous fictional cast.

The composite method worked well for Fitzgerald, and it can work for you.


After reading the lecture, try answering some or all of the following:

1.    Can you think of any additional problems that may stem from putting a character in a story without fictionalizing the person?

2.    Does the concept of composites seem interesting to you? Does it seem puzzling?

3.    Are you more interested in writing characters that are similar to or unlike yourself?
Source: 2005-2006 free online courses at http://bnuniversity.com/


27 April 2015

HOW TO WRITE FICTION - Lesson 2: It's Who You Know

If you go along with nine out of ten fiction writers, you will begin writing your fictional works by thinking of the characters. Even if you’re the odd tenth man out and you prefer to begin with something else -- plot, setting, theme, etc. -- you are going to need characters at some point. There are always characters in fiction. (Can you think of any exceptions?)

So the next logical question would be: where do fictional characters come from? More to the point: where will your fictional characters come from?

Characters Come From People 

That’s easy. The characters in your fiction will come from the people in your life.

But, you ask, what about all the great characters in literature that great authors simply made up -- baked from scratch, sewed together from whole cloth? The characters that simply materialized on the page from out of thin air, as if summoned by a snap of David Copperfield’s fingers? What about those characters? No such characters exist.

Think about it. Even if a fictional character isn’t based directly and consciously on a single person known by the author, the character is likely to act, interact, and react as people in general do. Otherwise, we won’t believe him or her and, as a result, we won’t believe the story.

In other words, no matter how different, how original, how unique an author intends a character to be, that character must behave in recognizably human ways. And the only way the writer can achieve this is, in some sense, to draw inspiration from people the writer has observed in real life.
So don’t think that the success of the great authors was primarily a matter of imaginative powers that you yourself do not possess. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, Dickens and Victor Hugo, Henry James and Edith Wharton and Raymond Carver and Toni Morrison all worked with the same raw material.

That raw material is the human race. As remarkable as they are, if Heathcliff and the Hunchback (of Notre Dame) weren’t fundamentally based on people at least somewhat like the ones we know, we wouldn’t care enough about them to continue reading. Even the four-footed denizens of Animal Farm are based on recognizable people. In fact, the pigs in George Orwell’s book are caricatures of very particular historical figures: Stalin, Trotsky, and others involved in the Russian Revolution.

Origin of Characters in The Great Gatsby 

What about F. Scott Fitzgerald? Did he draw the characters in The Great Gatsby from people in real life? The answer is an emphatic "yes."

Nick Carraway is based on Fitzgerald himself, a Midwesterner who came East to attend an Ivy League university and got swept up in the excitement and glamour of the Jazz Age. Now, Fitzgerald did not sell bonds, nor did he return to the Midwest, as Nick does at novel’s end. However, their reactions to what they witness are very similar. As his notebooks indicate, Fitzgerald responded to the excesses of the 1920s in much the way that Nick does: disapproval mixed with awe and a little bit of the fear of a small-town boy in the big city. (The book’s preface reveals some other interesting tidbits about Fitzgerald.)

Daisy Buchanan seems to be based in part on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda. Born Zelda Sayre, she was the beautiful daughter of a socially prominent State Supreme Court Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Fitzgerald met her when he was stationed nearby as an eighteen-year-old soldier near the end of the First World War. Because he was neither rich nor even socially well-connected, Zelda refused to marry Fitzgerald. It was only after the sale of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, that she agreed to be his wife.

If you’ve read Chapter 5, you’re probably noticing something interesting here. Wasn’t there a broken romance between Gatsby and Daisy? Why is Gatsby so desperately trying to impress Daisy with his collection of shirts? Yes, it seems that Jay Gatsby too is based, to some degree, on Fitzgerald. Think about it: A man without money or social connections meets a beautiful Southern belle while stationed near her home during wartime. Since she won’t marry him, he goes out into the world and transforms himself into a success in his field (This Side of Paradise was a huge bestseller) before returning to claim the love of the woman who once spurned him.

Clearly, the characters in this novel were inspired by some people very close to Fitzgerald’s home, or, more precisely at his home.

You Know People Too 

If it was a good enough method for the great Fitzgerald, it’s good enough for you. Look at the world of your own life for characters, or potential characters, because that’s where they are. All around you. Numerous people. Every single day.

Consider the following options:

·        People you know well
·        People you don’t know well
·        People you met just once
·        People you’d like to meet
·        People you never met
·        People you saw from a distance
·        People you saw on TV
·        People you’ve only read about

The possibilities are endless.

Surely you’ve met an intriguing person at a party. This person probably didn’t call you "old sport," as Gatsby calls Nick, but perhaps the person used some other term of endearment or turn of phrase that could inspire a character. Perhaps you’ve sat in a crowded restaurant and noticed a "shady" character working a deal over in the corner. You may not discover that this person fixed the World Series, as did Meyer Wolfsheim, but there must be something about that person useful for a character. If you’re not getting out of the house enough, well ... look in the mirror. As Fitzgerald did, take note of yourself, and the love of your life. Look at your family and friends, and at their friends, and even the woman you see every day at the bus stop.

Each of them is interesting, memorable, in at least one way, probably many ways. Each is potentially an inspiration for a character.

How to Use People in Fiction 

It may work something like this. Let's say you see a woman every day at the bus stop. And every day she is reading a different book. You wonder about this. Does she finish them all, sneaking peeks throughout her work day, devouring pages instead of soup or salad at lunchtime, then reading all night, until she reads the final page? Maybe she only starts the books, losing interest before the day is done.

Perhaps she doesn’t read the books at all, just holds them open in front of her, hoping that a stranger will strike up a conversation about Carrie or The Scarlet Letter. She’s terribly shy, you see, and doesn’t know anyone in the big city, having just moved here from Kansas. She works at a bookstore, though, where they allow employees to borrow books overnight, so as to become more knowledgeable salespeople.

One day, an elegant-looking older man does, in fact, inquire about the book she’s holding: The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer. Like the characters in the book, he tells her, he served in the Pacific during World War II, only it wasn’t like Mailer says at all. Stammering at first, she tells him she hasn’t read much, but likes it so far...

This is already starting to sound like a good story, isn’t it? Aren’t you growing curious about this woman? In the last lesson we learned that characters are the source of fiction and here the point is being proven. A little observation of a real life person mixed with a little imagination has given birth to what could be a wonderful story.

And it all started with someone you knew from your life. 


After reading the lecture, try answering some or all of the following:

1.    Do you ever look at strangers and wonder what their "story" is?

2.    Can you think of any additional reasons why the lady at the bus stop has a new book every day?

3.    Is it important for characters to be likable?

Source: 2005-2006 free online courses at http://bnuniversity.com/ 


24 April 2015

HOW TO WRITE FICTION – Lesson 1: The Truth About Fiction


In the Fiction writing classes at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, it's not necessary to spend a lot of time in the first class defining what fiction is. The answer is fairly obvious: fiction is made-up stories told in prose form. Fiction usually consists of novels, novellas and short stories. There, fiction has been defined. Easy enough.

But it is helpful for fiction writers to gain some understanding of why people like to read fiction. If you have some understanding of this issue, you'll have some idea of how to satisfy your readers when it comes time for you to dream up your own fiction. So let us dive into this question and see what pearls of wisdom we may discover.

Reasons to Read

So, why do we read fiction? Actually, the answer to this isn't going to be so simple. In truth, there are probably as many reasons as there are readers. Nevertheless, we should be able to pinpoint a few of the most prevalent reasons.

Many of us read so as to be transported to different times and places, be it the nineteenth-century London of Charles Dickens or J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. Have you ever been so literally "transported" by a book that you forgot where you were, with the result that you missed your bus stop or allowed a pot of something to burn on the stove, setting off the smoke alarm?

Others read to improve themselves, to expand their knowledge of the world and how it works. If you wish to understand what life was like on the front lines of World War I, you could read Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. If you're curious about New England's long-gone whaling industry, you could sail through Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Of course, some stories primarily offer an entertaining escape. Think of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park with its earth-shaking dinosaurs or the legal thrillers of John Grisham. Though these stories might seem to be a contemporary phenomenon, escapist literature has been around a long time. In the nineteenth century, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island was a popular tale of escapism. Ever hear of a little thing called The Odyssey? Homer offers penetrating insight into human nature in his epic poem, but he also gives us the proverbial thrills, chills, and spills.

The very best stories offer something else to each of us, regardless of our reasons for reading them. That something else is intensity. "How fascinating!" we think, shaking our heads in wonderment while turning page after page. Or: "Damn! This is so exciting." Fiction can make us laugh, cry, or check the lock on the front door -- despite the fact that it's "just pretend," and we know it.

That's why we can't put down the books we love. We don't want to abandon their especially intense worlds for the low-key vibe of daily living -- driving to work, paying the bills, or hosing down the patio furniture.

Real life can, of course, be intense (sometimes too intense), but even then, it tends to lack organization, focus. It is illogical, sprouting dozens, maybe hundreds, of loose ends over the years. Life is messy. A properly told story, on the other hand, has a clear beginning, middle and end. This focus makes the experience of reading a story all the more intense.

Still, it's certainly possible to write a story that meets some or all of the above criteria and to fail utterly as a storyteller. Surely you've read a story like this, or at least started to before closing the thing and putting it back in your bookcase or returning it to the library. All the pieces of such a story seem to be in place. And yet you, the reader, don't really care. What is it about fiction that makes us care? The answer is simple: characters.

Characters Are What We Care About

Characters are quite literally the human element within stories -- the living, breathing, laughing, crying part. There's no such thing as a story without at least one character, even if the character is a horse, as in Bruce Jay Freedman's short-story "Post-Time" or the computer HAL in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When we fall in love with a story, most of the time it's the characters that we love, not the details of plot, the sparkling dialogue, or the author's original style. Characters are what we remember about stories, and why we return to them. We empathize with their fundamental condition, because it is exactly our own. They are people and we are people. We can relate.

Thus perhaps the very best reason we read fiction is to meet characters. By reading about people in fiction we gain insight into human nature. And, strangely enough, fiction can provide this insight a little better than daily life.
For example, your coworker's behavior may not make sense to you, since you can't know exactly how she grew up, much less what she's thinking at any given moment. Yet it's possible to understand a character as complex as Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved, precisely because we are offered access to her past and to her inner life. That insight can, in turn, help us to comprehend and sympathize with our fellow flesh-and-blood human beings more fully. Even that puzzling coworker.

Have you ever read J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye? Do you remember it? (Of course you do. It's one of the most beloved books of all time.) Okay, now what do you recall about the novel? Can you summarize its plot? Probably not. Can you describe Holden Caulfield? Yes! Perhaps you remember his red hunting hat (he wears it backwards), or how he calls everything "phony." Remember how he relates to his little sister, Phoebe, and Holden's intense feeling of aloneness, expressed by his identification with the ducks in Central Park? Many readers feel as though they actually met Holden Caulfield once. Maybe you do, too.

Even if you've read Wuthering Heights two or three times, you may be hazy about what goes on, exactly, especially in the complicated second part. But you will never, ever forget the fierce love between Catherine and Heathcliff.

We mentioned Dickens earlier. Next to the playwright Shakespeare, he's probably responsible for more memorable characters than any other English-language author. Think of Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham, haunted by her would-be wedding day. Or Madame Dafarge, famously knitting as the French Revolution is born, in A Tale of Two Cities. At least one Dickens character has inspired a generic term; if you've ever worked through your office holiday party, you know what it's like to be called a "Scrooge."

This attraction to characters is why successful writers of detective novels bring their main characters back again and again. The intricate plot of any individual mystery fades fast, but we remember Sam Spade, Kinsey Millhone, and Easy Rawlins -- and we want to spend more time in their company.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald satisfies in a multitude of ways, but for the majority of readers the characters are the most entertaining and memorable aspect of this great novel. In just the first three chapters, you meet a parade of characters that you may like or dislike but are unlikely to soon forget.

Then there is Jay Gatsby, one of the most unforgettable characters in all literature. If you've made it through Chapter 3, chances are the man has already made a strong impression on you, even though you've only had a few fleeting glimpses of him. As you continue reading this novel, notice how dimensional and fascinating this character grows, chapter by chapter. He is likable, but somewhat untrustworthy. He is richly detailed, but never completely knowable. He is very human, yet somehow larger than life. We can also recognize Gatsby in the world around us. He is an American legend -- the self-made man. Nowadays, it's hard not to think of Gatsby when one hears about such celebrities as Ralph Lauren or Martha Stewart or Bill Gates.

When you finish reading the book, even then Gatsby will not fade. He lingers in the memory, standing on the lawn, stretching out his arms toward the green light at the end of the dock, dreaming about the infinite possibilities of the future.

Characters Are the Source

However, the purpose of this class is not to wax philosophical about fiction. We are here because we want to learn to write the stuff ourselves, right? So let's get down to business.
It has been said that there are three elements of fiction-writing to concentrate on above all others. Here they are:

·        Character
·        Character
·        Character

The truth is: fiction is about people. If you can write interesting people, chances are you can write interesting fiction. It's (almost) as simple as that.
Not only do characters tend to be the most memorable aspect in fiction, but really everything in a story -- plot, point of view, setting, description, voice, etc. -- emanates from the people. You might say that characters are the source of fiction, the thing from which everything else flows.

If you ask ten fiction writers how they begin writing a story, nine of them will tell you, "I start with a character." It's not written in stone that you too must do so. But it is undeniably a great way -- perhaps the best way -- to start.


After reading the lecture, try answering some or all of the following:

1.    Why do you like to read fiction?

2.    Do you agree that characters are usually the most memorable aspect in a work of fiction?

3.    Why do you want to write fiction? Have you written much fiction previously or is this a new thing for you?
Source: 2005-2006 free online courses at http://bnuniversity.com/