Character: Altered Ego

Early in The Girl Who Played With Fire Lisbeth Salander goes to Ikea.  She buys ‘two Karlanda sofas with sand-coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs’ and at least five other tables.  There is something so fascinating about the character that for me she could have carried on to Lidl and I’d still have been wondering what she was going to buy.  Soon after, she disappears for most of the novel, Mikael Blomkvist takes over and the novel goes flat.

Blomkvist is a cypher for the author Steig Larson.  By rights he should be interesting: a campaigning journalist risking his life to get to the story and bring the baddies to justice.  But he’s not.

Why is it so difficult to write an interesting character that is based on yourself?  It is, after all, the easiest way to create one: just walk yourself through the action.  The trouble is that the result is often unsatisfactory.  Even Dickens seems to have struggled with this.  Some of the male leads in his later novels suffer from a sort of flatness: John Jarndyce (Bleak House), Arthur Clenham (Little Dorrit), John Harmon (Our Mutual Friend), are melancholic do-gooders, and contrast with more interesting leads like Pickwick, Oliver Twist or Scrooge.

When you set out to write a character based on yourself it is a little like sitting inside a washing machine: thoughts, experiences, feelings, opinions, churn around you, and the character can end up as a confused version of what you think of yourself.  Those that you regard as different are much easier.  You are now outside the washing machine and distance brings perspective.  You can point and say, ‘Look! shirt, socks, pants.’

Any character is likely to reflect some aspect of its author.  But with characters-at-a-distance, it may only be a single aspect; a shard in which, if you look hard enough, you might see a likeness.

One of the things that makes Silence of the Lambs so interesting is there are two great characters: Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector.  For her the interest is always, how is this person from such tortured beginnings going to solve a case with so many people getting in her way?  For him, it’s who is this person?  Tell me the details of how he lives in his flat in Italy; tell me what it’s like when he has to sit next to a noisy, smelly kid on a crowded flight.   Most of all, tell me what happens every time the two of them meet.

I think it is fairly safe to assume that Thomas Harris is neither a young ambitious woman nor a psychopathic cannibal.  But perhaps that very distance enabled him to create characters that reflected some aspect of his own psyche without the character getting overwhelmed by it.

One of my favourite Dickens’ characters is Bradley Headstone in Bleak House.  He is murderous jealousy personified.  It is a weighty, lumbering emotion, summed up perfectly in the name.  The way he is written turns him from a standard villain to someone whose own suffering brings a degree of empathy.  Dickens biographies suggest that he could be subject to such feelings.

As ever, I’m trying to work out an issue that I’m facing in my writing.  On two occasions, agents have commented that they liked the elderly woman in my second novel, but not the man.  And that’s the one that’s based on me.  The main character in my current novel is also based on me.  So how do I save them from being flat?

The subject of another post, I think.  But, in the meantime, if you have any ideas let me know.


6 thoughts on “Character: Altered Ego

  1. I liked the man in your novel and he didn’t seem flat to me, at all. Actually it never occurred to me he was based on you, either!

    1. Thanks. I guess our self-perception doesn’t always match the way that other people see us. It’s bit like the advice that you can happily base characters on other people because they very rarely recognise themselves.

    2. And actually, perhaps it’s more that it’s harder to get a character based on yourself to live in the novel. To have a dynamism. We easily perceive other people act and speak in the real world, but we see ourselves from…inside the washing machine.

  2. Perhaps it’s down to feeling obliged in some was to be true to a vision of oneself? I have written a character based on me but, after a while, she started to do and feel things that I probably wouldn’t. I supposed as the plot developed she became less me and more herself. Similarly I have written characters who were nothing like me but had aspects of their characters informed by experiences I’ve had. As you say, ultimately all our characters are us in some way or we wouldn’t be able to get inside them.

    1. Yes. There does seem to be a point at which they step free of you. And then the skill is just to let them go. I’m having a similar experience at the moment with a character I had been struggling with who has just taken off in a different direction, and I’m waiting to see where we’re going.

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