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BN Editor
Posts: 546
Registered: ‎10-20-2006
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The Composite Method

[ Edited ]


Where do the ideas for great characters come from? If you look closely, inspiration is all around you.

We'll spend approximately two weeks on this topic. During this time, you'll find this Topic and the discussion question threads permanently placed at the top of the message board, where you can find them easily. Included here is a writing exercise, with instruction for how to post it for peer review. At the top of this book club page, we'll notify the group when we're moving on to the next topic.

One important thing to note: even though we will be focusing on one core topic at a time, please remember that all of the topics will be on the message board, available for you to read and discuss at any time, at your own pace.

The Composite Method

It's usually not enough 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.

Truth be told, there are numerous pitfalls to photo-copying people -- 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.

Maybe you're thinking at this point, "I know me. I'll base a character, lots of characters, on myself. That'll be easy!" But do you think you know yourself all that well? 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. To write wholly autobiographical fiction is therefore a very dicey undertaking. Characters that beginning writers base on themselves are almost always the thinnest on the page, the least clear, and the least 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 may know the detailed mannerisms of your closest relatives and friends, but you may know them 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. But by fictionalizing the person, you open up a myriad of interesting possibilities from which you may choose.

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.

Discuss This Topic

Click on the discussion topics below to go to that thread.

The Writing Exercise

  • Put together a character based on three separate people. If that instruction is too vague, base the character on one of your parents. But use a "piece" of one person's personality. And then use a "piece" of someone else (whether you know them or not!).

  • Give the character a fictional name and write a brief description of them. If you need help coming up with a name, refer to "What's In a Name? on pages 50-51 of Writing Fiction. Your description can be a paragraph or several pages. If you find it easier to put the character in action -- doing something -- feel free to do so.

To share your passage with the group, create a New Message and use "(Your Book Club User Name), The Composite Method -- Writing Exercise" in the subject line.

Enter your writing sample, and let us know let us know their name. Do you think you made the character more or less interesting through the composite method?

If you share your writing sample with the group, feel free to comment on other writers' passages as well.

Message Edited by BookClubEditor on 01-05-2007 03:36 PM