Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Visualizing Composite Characters, Whether Or Not They're Modeled on "Real" People

I think every piece of fiction I've ever written has been inspired by real life--either mine or someone else's. Life is a rich source of material for everything from story ideas to characterization, setting, plot, sensory details, etc. But turning life into fiction has its own set of problems, which is what led Michelle T. to submit her "Ask the TeachingAuthors" question.

Michelle is struggling with the same problems I had writing Rosa, Sola. My novel, which started out as a short story, was based on events that happened to me around age 10. When I wrote the short story's first draft, the main character was me--I used my own name and the real names of all the other people involved. I was trying to make the draft feel as true-to-life as possible. I also hoped that by using the real names I could better connect with the emotions I experienced at the time.

To help me get even deeper into the mind of my ten-year-old self, I dug out my fourth-grade class photograph and other family pictures. Looking at those photographs did indeed help me reconnect with what it felt like growing up in the 1960s as the daughter of Italian-immigrant parents. But reminiscing created problems, too, even after I gave all my characters new names. Using my fourth-grade photograph to represent Rosa Bernardi made it too easy to think of myself as the main character. That, in turn, interfered with my ability to see the story's possibilities.

Luckily, around that time I discovered Robin Hemley's Turning Life into Fiction. The book helped me find solutions to many of my problems. As Hemley explains:
"It's important that you don't think of your main character as yourself. The character can be based on you, but you must make a distinction. Otherwise, you might be unwilling to allow things to happen to the character that you wouldn't want happening to yourself, or allow your character to behave in a way you wouldn't normally behave."
After reading that, I put away my fourth-grade picture and began searching in newspapers and magazines for a photograph to represent Rosa. However, Rosa, Sola is set in the 1960s, and all the girls I found looked too modern. Finally, I came across a used book called Italy, which was published in 1961 as part of the World Library series. The book was filled with black and white photographs of Italians going about their daily lives. Perfetto! On page 15, I found a shot of a group of girls playing beside a fountain. One of those girls became Rosa Bernardi, and three others in the shot came to represent Rosa's best friend AnnaMaria and her sisters. On other pages I found images for Rosa's mother, father, and godmother. The photographs helped me visualize my characters as composites who exhibited a blend of personality traits and idiosyncrasies from real people I knew. In other words, they became complex, well-rounded, fictional characters.

I'm currently working on a historical young-adult novel based on two sisters who lived in eighteenth-century Italy. This time, I turned to the Internet to find photographs to represent my characters. Using Google images, I searched for portraits of eighteenth-century Italian men and women to people my novel. I found some great images that also helped me visualize the clothing and furniture of the period. However, I couldn't find a portrait that fit the mental image I already had of my protagonist's father.

Then I remembered a technique young-adult author Richard Peck shared at a conference--he often bases his characters on movie actors. For example, he told us that Grandma Dowdel in A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago was modeled after Marjorie Main's portrayal of Ma Kettle.

So I went hunting on the Internet Movie Database for someone who would fit the role of the father in my novel. I found the perfect match, at least for now. (I'm not going to say who it is though, in case I change my mind later.)

Finding (or drawing) pictures to represent our characters is a useful technique for making them more "real," not only in our own minds, but in our readers' minds, too. It doesn't matter if our characters are based on people we know or not. But if you'd like to practice turning people you know into composite characters, try the following Writing Workout.

Writing Workout:
Visualizing Composite Characters

This exercise is based on one in Josip Novakovich's book Writing Fiction Step by Step:

Choose physical characteristics from three people you know to construct a composite character. For example, you can take the eyes from one, the nose and ears from the second, the mouth and hair from the third. Make your composite's overall body shape match one of the three. You don't have to copy the "real life" traits exactly--feel free to exaggerate to make them more striking. If you like to draw, create an illustration representing your composite character. Or make copies of photographs of your "models," and cut and paste them together.

Now, select an interesting personality trait from one of these three people, or a fourth person. Perhaps you know someone who likes puns and plays on words. Give that trait to your composite character. Then place your character in a scene, give him or her a problem, and see what happens!


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

These are great suggestions! Thank you!
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience
Ch. 1 is online

Lisa said...

Great post. I've used pictures to help me visualize eras, events, and real people (whether featured in historical fiction or nonfiction), but I've never tried finding pics to help with composite characters. That makes perfect sense.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for your comments. Do let me know if you give it a try!