Friday, August 15, 2014

Origins of Characters

I recorded a documentary on the behind the scenes off the James Bond franchise a while back and I finally got to watch it a couple of nights ago. While much of it was the behind the scenes drama of the movies, the first part held a lot of fascinating aspects for me as a writer.

Ian Flemming participated in World War II as a spy. However, he was not a field spy, but he did manage a field spy team. He would rather have been in the field. He was a commander in the Royal Navy, but land bound in London. During the war he fell for a young courier. They were very close, but she was killed and it left him heart broken. After the war he was lost. Spent time at his Goldeneye estate. When the Cold War dawned he got the idea for James Bond. Many aspect of James Bond are autobiographical. Flemming was a bit of a playboy and never really settled down.

So, how did Flemming create James Bond. Well, the name came from a book on birds he had at Goldeneye. James Bond was the author and Flemming thought it just the sort of boring name his spy would need. Otherwise Bond was basically the spy Flemming had wanted to be, but reset from WWII to the Cold War. Bond was a cold killer and a passionate lover. He could switch from one to the other as the need arose. You can't quite say that Flemming didn't give him flaws, but it is those flaws as a person that make him a great spy. The same flaws Flemming saw in himself. Well, maybe not flaws, but aspects of his personality that really didn't fit in with the quite life.

That is just one example of how you create an iconic character. George Lucas did something far different with Star Wars. He consulted Campbell's book of mythical archetypes and used those to populate his story, a strange mixture of samurai cinema, WWII war movie, and his own boyhood in California. If any character in the film shared traits with Lucas himself, it would have been Han Solo, or maybe Chewbacca. The others come from myths and speak to the type of story humans have been telling for millennia.

Then there is Charles Dickens. So much of his work is autobiographical. He knew the things he wrote about and while I can't say if he put himself in any of the characters, he definitely put his family in them. Some writers didn't leave much to compare, but there are tantalizing tidbits. Victor Hugo was out on the streets of Paris and came across a barricade on that fateful night. Who might he have seen there that led to Jean Valjean, Marius, Enjolras, Eponine, or Gavroche. Regardless of the individuals, whoever he met that night likely died and lived again in the spirit of the characters he created.

Jane Austen lived most of the life of her heroines. He family was of modest income, comfortable but not rich. Her family was close. Her stories are a biography of her time. But unlike her characters, she never found the love and marriage she made sure they had.

Writers often create characters who are based on hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled. Lives cut short, loves lost, careers not tried. Often characters are more polished that the original, but sometimes they go the other way. This all goes in line with what I think makes a good character. Realism is the key to connecting with the reader. Sometimes that realism may be linking to our real life fantasies, not our real life. Some characters live the life we can only dream of, some are so close to us that we empathize with, some are so bad off that you hope no one you care about ends up like that. But in each case and in the areas in between, they are the realities encountered by our species. Our characters, even when they wield great powers that defy physics, are human. That is what makes them relateable to readers.

So it is no wonder that some of the most iconic characters have their origins in the real lives of their creators or the lives of those around them. The good characters feel real because they have their origins from the complex and human lives of their creators.

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