Characters in Stories Aren’t Real People….Or Are They?

A majority of Siana’s War is in first person narrative. When you spend over a decade of your life and thousands of words writing about a character, especially in first person narrative, that character lives in your head all the time. Things that happened to her in your book feel like memories, not scenes out of a novel. Memories are a cognitive construct anyway…they change over time as you grow and change, and you retell your stories to friends and families. The very process of recalling things alters them. Memories become memories of the original memory. I often feel like Siana’s memories are more concrete than mine, for they have a biblical objectivity in the pages of my book.

Are the characters in your book real? Can you discuss their experiences and motivations with a friend as if you’re discussing an actual person you both know? I would argue absolutely. Just because the original genesis for the character was in your own mind doesn’t mean you can now take random liberties with the boundaries of their personality or behavior. I know the kind of things Siana would do or say. I know the kind of decisions she wouldn’t make…decisions that I might consider for a scene, but don’t feel right. The longer I write about her, the harder it gets…in that I am now boundaried by the person she has become through the 9 years of her life I’ve chronicled already. I am clearer about who she is, but she drives the story more, and sometimes in directions my deus ex machina doesn’t like.

To put it a different way, if you don’t believe your characters are real, you have no business writing about them.

They are not puppets. They are not like every character in Matrix Reloaded, spouting off the same philosophical jargon. (I love that movie, but realized one day that in the first movie, Morpheus talked like Morpheus but in Reloaded EVERYONE talks like Morpheus.) If you are faithful in listening to your characters, taking time to divine how they would act in a new crisis, or in meeting a new character, they become real people, independent of your initial efforts to build their predilections.

One of my pet peeves about even really awesome books (e.g. The Baroque Cycle) is dialogue that doesn’t really reflect the individuality of the speaker. I want my characters to really speak from their own personality. I talk the dialogue aloud to get a feel for how real people talk, complete with run-on sentences, and casual grammar. I tried to give Paris (the dancer Siana meets in the jungle kingdom of Kadesh) the dialogue patterns of a really smart Barbie doll.  That wasn’t exactly easy.  She talks nothing like Siana. I tried to make Ambrose Bierce (yes, he is a character in Siana’s War) talk like a bristly, chauvinistic, literary genius of the 1800s, down to researching whether certain turns of phrases entered the English vernacular in time for him to use them.




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