Blog 4: BETTER DEAD THAN BRED: Fact, Fiction, and Character
Every writer of fiction entwines fact and fantasy. Proportions between the two differ, but all fiction is grounded in what the writer has experienced. How could it be otherwise? Most writers read voraciously, living a multiplicity of lives vicariously, contemplating how it must be to survive, love, and make decisions as this character or that character. Few of us consort with murderers or rocket scientists or struggling citizens of war-torn countries, but we’ve read, watched television, viewed film, and attended dramatic productions, avidly inserting ourselves into the lives we are experiencing second hand.
We integrate everything we read or experience into our world view, consciously or subconsciously, so that when we write, we draw upon the elements of our life. We inhabit, in some way, every character in our books – and they inhabit us. Imagination inevitably ‘sticks’ to something or someone concrete in our existence.
Consequently, creating character involves drawing upon our integrated understanding of humanity, separating out the relevant strands, and weaving them into a person just right for our fictive intentions. It’s a puzzle. We have all the pieces.
Originally, because he asked to be ‘bad,’ Opi was going to be a villain. But knowledge of my friend on whom the character was to be based conflicted so profoundly with that notion, I abandoned that plan. Instead, I decided, he would begin the novel as the good man I know him to be. I had to make him a little flawed because flaws humanize a character. More significantly, in a character who journeys to a personal hell and back, that flaw needs to cause, or contribute in a major way to, his fall from grace.
Ironically, as Tom Stoppard points out in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, fiction appears more real on stage – and, by extension, in all forms of transactional art -- than reality. So while characters may be grounded in people the author knows, or in historical characters known around the world, the author fictionalizes the character to fulfil the needs of the story.
Following this logic, I created my protagonist: Sean Bergmann, a good man, comfortable in his life and his marriage, who joins a rogue activist group using the name “Opi” and risks everything for revenge. That need for revenge is his flaw and his propellant into evil.
Sharon J. Hamilton has taught English in every grade, from one through master’s level, during her forty-year career. She earned a PhD in language and literacy at the University of London and has participated in writing seminars at Corpus Cristi College, Oxford, and the Faber Academy, London.