In an interview in the Paris Review, Toni Morrison explains how her characters are created entirely out of her imagination. ‘It’s never based on anyone. […] In fiction, I feel the most intelligent, the most free, and the most excited, when my characters are fully invented people. That’s part of the excitement. If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction.’
One might argue, on the contrary, that everything is available for fiction: ‘everything’ according to George Eliot, ‘is a combination from widely sundered elements of experience’. But no-one, not even George Eliot, would want to argue with Toni Morrison, and there is no doubt that the creation of fictional characters does require invention and imagination. The only question is exactly how much invention and imagination, and how much we might use whatever is to hand.
At one extreme there are those who use everything that’s to hand, the Victor Frankensteins, determined in their midnight labours to piece together characters from the various parts they have scavenged: the sneer of an old schoolfriend; the hair of some beloved aunt; the clothes and manners of a sister or some character on tv. For them, fiction is a bastard form and their characters born of memory and experience as much as from the imagination. Robert Louis Stevenson referred to the creation of character by this method as ‘psychical surgery’.
At the other extreme are those we might think of as the Morrisons, those who claim to create by fiat, by what Henry James calls ‘the blest habit of one’s own imagination’, with characters completely unrecognisable as our old friend Ms Her or that bloke who lives across the street, Mr B. L. Oke.
Most of us in our writing habits are probably part-Frankenstein and part-Morrison. There’s probably no writer who hasn’t at some time considered using friends and family in their fiction, or indeed who hasn’t been tempted to concoct some cockamamie character questionnaire: what is your character’s name; do they have a nickname; where were they born; how often do they cut their toenails; and etcetera. And everyone knows that you have to give your characters some sort of desire, present them with some obstacles to overcome, attempt to make them round or flat, and active or passive and coherent according to their actions, appearance, speech and thought – you know, the usual sorts of writing advice.
But other methods are available. In his essay ‘The Concept of Character in Fiction’ the American writer William Gass argues that characters on the page are nothing like people and should not be conceived as such, but rather should be understood merely as ‘a noise’, as ‘a proper name’, and as ‘a source of verbal energy’.
So here’s my top tip for creating a character, which also serves as a useful tip for writing generally. Don’t think about other people at all. Just make some noise.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.