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More on building characters


In literature an archetype is a character based on a pre-existing model. We're all familiar with the self-made man, the damsel in distress, the villain, the hero. The notion of archetype owns much to the psychologist Carl Yung. who believed who believed we easily identify characters that are based on models handed down to us through literature. Shakespear's Juliet is the archetype of the young star-crossed lover. Scarlet O'Hara is the archetype of the strong-willed heroine.

A useful as archetype may be in novel writing, there is a danger of introducing stock characters whose presence deadens the story. The angry hero who wants nothing to do with women, and the “injured” heroine who can’t open her heart to love come to mind. The best policy is to get acquainted through a wide reading of literature, then create your own characters to meet the expectations of today’s readers. Not an easy task, but it is better to strive for a living, breathing character rather than rely on tired clichés.

So much for the theory. A frequently asked question of successful authors: “Where do you find your characters?”

All writers draw on their life experiences and the people they have known. No matter how flattering the picture you paint, don’t write your family, friends and acquaintances into the novel. You’ll find it stifles your creativity. Frequently an author has to go back into the story to make drastic changes. If a character is based on your sweet aunt Augusta you may be reluctant to make that character do something dear auntie would not approve of. Make your character purely fictional by borrowing the qualities from your accumulated knowledge of human behavior.

Younger writers have obviously a more limited stick to draw on. One can overcome this by browsing the biography section of a library. Reading about the lives of well-known, and less well-known, figures may not give you material you can use directly in your novel, but it will broaden your understanding of how human beings react to the events that shape their lives.

Next time, a tip or two for creating a character.

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