Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Who's on, first? Characters at Work

The individuals who populate your stories have their origins in your own imagination, your observations and compressions of individuals from real life, and your immediate dramatic needs, although this last category will probably send you back to the first two sources.

Even though you may have some vested interest in them (if, for instance, you are righting a wrong in your past, or if you are getting revenge for something in your past, or if you are anticipating future events to see how you like them and to find out if they will play out as you thought). Tempting as it may be to step in to the midst of this cast of characters, your most productive role is to limit yourself to having only one character in the dramatis personae who represents you. Even then, you want to tread carefully because if they are to come to life for you and represent real individuals, they must have the ability to surprise you. They must also have qualities that cause you to want to follow them. After all the textbooks you’ve had to read, after all the things you’ve had to write while in a job capacity, you especially want characters whose ability to interest you and to cause you to feel concern for their welfare is important.

You need to know at least the following things about any character who walks across your pages:
Who is he/she?
What does he/she want?
What is this character willing to do to accomplish goals?
Suppose your character achieves goals--what then?

It is good to know these things, but it may also be argued that it is not good to know them to the point, say, that Melville knew about whales.
To help you along this track of portraiture, it is important to note the absolute, unquestioned complexity of homo sapiens sapiens. Unless you are planning a massive series, the characters who populate your work may be seen in a kind of shorthand of their complexity.
I’ve chosen three qualities to call out for consideration, Conscience, represented by C, ego represented by E,and needs, represented by N. A normal person would have these three qualities present in equal measure:


Although you may admire normal persons, perhaps even have some as role models, you don’t want them in your stories because they are--well, normal. John Cleese has admitted to not having a source for humor now that he’s become normal. Way to go.

You want characters who are out of adjustment, as a chiropractor might put it. You want characters with an enormous conscience

which will throw the ego and the needs out of balance, helping you to imagine the things that individual might have wanted but is not putting on hold. Of course you may wish instead a character with enormous needs, say an

Imagine if you will the size of conscience c such a person might have to support such needs. And ego? Why, there’s no telling what you’ll see in an individual with an enormous ego, an

A person with such an ego might have a similarly sized packet of needs and a proportionately less robust conscience.

This is the first step in truly seeing your characters, beyond their physical qualities and their Ahab- or Ishmael-like traits.

Now they are in place, ready to amaze and surprise you.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to think my characters are not normal. I also like to think I'm not rewriting past. It's great to use the past, but I want to take it someplace different. Some place I wouldn't expect.

At least, my characters do surprise me. I love them all for that.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Well, Shelly, you just outlined Freud's basics of the human psyche:
Superego = Conscience
Id = Needs
Ego = Conscious self, the mediator between the two

In German, the Id is the It; the Ego is the I; the Superego is the Over-I.

Of course, a sociopath would mostly lack a superego, though only to degrees. Snoop was a sociopath. Omar had a superego, in my opinion, he was just doing business.

The old generation of drug kingpins, Stringer, Avon, and D'Angelo had remnants of superego and were just doing business as well, which is what made them so charming (D'Angelo the most).

In the next generation, Marlo was pure, cold sociopath, vile, no conscience at all, unredeemable and uncharming in every way. No DQ for him, ever, ever.

So that there are degrees of all three elements of the psyche. Me, for example, I'm all Superego and Id. It's pathetic, I know.

lowenkopf said...

Yo,Squirrel,what up? You forgot heart. You got big heart, girl.

Marta, loving them is precisely what it takes.

Matt said...

Some day, perhaps when someone decides to kidnap me, I will have time to jot down the various formulae which could be extracted by your C, N, and E variables.

For example, how does N impact E? On the surface, one would assume that a large ego wouldn't have proportionately large needs. Yet, upon further inspection, large egos (similar to how loud, obnoxious people require lots of oxygen) are very needy.


Wild Iris said...

Somehow this whole description puts in mind "No Country For Old Men." I wonder why that is.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Matt: You're right, there is no "size" correlation among the parts, just different needs. Think of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, from food and shelter up to power and control. Research has shown the different people seek fulfillment of different needs in ways that predict behavior: needs for achievement, power and affiliation being the most common, and even they can overlap. There are the basic life-sustaining needs, the infantile immature needs and then the mature social status needs. Lots to think about though re: characters. Hmmm.