Self-Publish 5: Characterization
Whoever reads this article should understand that I’m not a serious university student of literature, nor a lecturer. I don’t even class myself as an author. I say I’m a raconteur who can write logically. But during my study for a first degree, I took a unit called English 10, which I passed. So I enrolled in English 20 for the following year. The focus was Shakespeare and it took me about three weeks to decide it wasn’t for me. My study continued and I achieved a Ph.D, but in an area far removed from literature. So my formal literature background is limited. In reading this article and others under the title of Self-Publish, therefore, please view me as someone who’s gone from writing formal research reports to creating fictional novels based on orally transmitted and collected stories. This foray into explaining some intricacies of self-publishing tells why I did it, how, what happened and to offer information to anyone who’s interested. I’m repeat, I am not an expert trying to present a treatise, outline a new way of writing fiction, or to challenge established writing processes. I’m just telling my story in simple language.
My method of developing characters for my novels is largely intuitive. I don’t approach a story with characters predetermined. They seem to evolve from a combination of factors. But the major guiding principle I follow came from the understanding that the main character in each story, known as ‘the protagonist’, has to undertake what a colleague described as ‘a journey’. The protagonist has to travel from somewhere to somewhere, whether physically, mentally, spiritually or all or of these and more. The point is to keep the reader engrossed, wondering what will happen to the character next. This, of course, shapes many events that occur in the story.
For example, because the story of Hiding Place is focused on a connection between Aboriginal values and Australian Rules football, a starting point was a remote Aboriginal community. I chose a remote community outside Alice Springs where I knew the country, the people and had some idea of how the sport was managed. So the protagonist, Mick Wilson, had to have a reason to be in Alice Springs, some ability in Australian Rules football, and something about him that made a cattle station owner decide to employ him. Characters who developed then came easily: Sally as the station-owner’s daughter, Casey as the traditional owner of land on which the station and his community are, Selena as part of his family, Garrick as the station-owner, his family connections to the community and the dark secret he carries from his youth. But the main point is that apart from Mick’s reason to be in Alice Springs, everything else evolved as the story developed. I’ve said a few times now that once I get writing in detail, it’s like the characters tell me what’s going to happen and why, rather than me as the author determining it.
That’s been the pattern in each story: deciding on the protagonist and the general journey he (and in the case of The WILUNA Solution, she because Jessica is part of the journey) will take.
The individual characters, while they’re figments of my imagination, have always grown from people I’ve known. That occurs in one of two ways. The first is by me using the characteristics and attitudes of individuals I’ve known but creating personalities with those. The second is bto take a series of events that have made someone’s life interesting to me.
In the case of the former, the character develops quickly, but the events he or she goes through are almost always fictional and the attitudes generally change over time. In the case of using events in the life of someone I’ve known, the character takes much longer to develop as I have to create the attitudes and characteristics. And in the latter case, I make it a rule to allow the person whose life events are being fictionally portrayed to read the story. Taking that ethical position is important to me, even though dealing with the feedback can at times be less than pleasant, and on two occasions, has been, sadly, at the cost of a friendship. So be warned that doing the second can create issues.
Finally, there have been two occasions in developing characters where I use both characteristics and attitudes woven with a series of life events. As an example, Niall O’Shea is a character in “Turn on a Light”. His attitudes as head of a government department, a member of the Catholic Diocesan Board in the large rural town, and as president of three voluntary committees , are on visible to his family and local people. What is hidden are events that occur in unethical and immoral ways. Niall’s life is based on events that occurred in the life of a man I once knew, as are his initial ethics and morality . What occurs later in the story, where his eldest daughter challenges him, is totally fictional. And it was his daughter’s guidance as a character that gave me guidance and input as to how things should evolve.
And I’d say the bottom line is this: the characters in your story have to have believable characteristics, attitudes and events or, even if the story involves the occult, or in my case with “The WILUNA Solution”, time travel. In those circumstances, use the advice I was given, which is to leave as much as possible to imagination of the reader. In other words, don’t try to justify or explain.