Isabella Farrah (and other parts of me)

There is a question every author will be asked–oh so many times!–during their career.

That question is: “How do you come up with your characters?”

Its cousin is: “Are you going to put me in one of your books?”

The answer to the second question is: “That depends. Are you an awful person/have you been unspeakably nasty to me/the people I love? Then yes. And the character that is you will probably die alone and miserable, or at once and ‘orribly. Are you a nice/ordinary/pleasant person? Then maybe, but only the parts of you that interest me. Maybe your hair. Perhaps that habit of yours where you silently flick your index and fore fingers when you feel nervous. You will be dismembered in the most painless way, and your foibles and character traits dissected with great interest.”

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”

-E.L. Doctorow

The answer to the first is slightly more complicated. I don’t really draw characters from real life, wholesale. I take bits and pieces. Sometimes those bits and pieces come from the people around me, but mostly they come from myself.

What is it that E.L. Doctorow says? “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”. It’s true. I honestly don’t know how many authors work this way, but for me, there is some sense in which every character I write is me. Well, a part of me. Remember what I said about dismemberment earlier? Well, that applies to myself as well. I’m a great proponent of the practise of self-dismemberment. My characters are a kind of Igor: this piece patched onto that piece, a bit of embellishment here, and a bit of fancy stitching there. I don’t just keep the pieces as they are–I idealise them and alter them–but they remain essentially what they are: pieces of me.

My characters are a kind of Igor: this piece patched onto that piece, a bit of embellishment here, and a bit of fancy stitching there.

To put it in practical terms, we’ll take Isabella Farrah, the MC from my Beauty & the Beast rewrite, MASQUE. Lady Isabella Farrah is intelligent, driven, stubborn, resourceful, and incredibly confident. She has a great love for tea, adores her meals, and has a genius for making clothes. She pulls strings, lays plans, and makes the people around her dance to her tune–all for their own good, of course! She is quite certain that she knows best, and–fortunately for her–she is almost always right. (See Jane Austen’s EMMA for what can happen when such a character is not almost always right!)

Now this isn’t a true representation of my own character traits, but it does have its genesis there. I gave Isabella all of my stubbornness (and then some, since in her paradigm she is almost always right, whereas I, alas, am not), my love for tea and good food, and a heightened sense of my own love for making clothes. I also gave her what my mother calls my Pied Piper attribute. For some reason, kids over the age of three seem to love me. They follow me around, grin at me, tell me their made up jokes, and do what I tell them to (and sometimes what I do, which brings its own problems). With very few exceptions, I find it easy to manage a crowd of kids. So I made this attribute bigger and better and less inclined to small failures, and gave it to Isabella, who makes everyone dance to her tune.

She was such a fun and easy character to write because I took of my most confident and comfortable things to make her. Now, when I write characters with less pleasant parts of me–my fear of people yelling at me, for example, or my anxiety with what people think of me–it makes writing that character much harder. I don’t love the parts of me that are afraid of everything. I’d much rather write confident, self-reliant people. But the fact is that there are parts of me that are always afraid, always sick, or always not particularly nice. And if I don’t write character with those traits as well–MCs as well as side characters–let’s face it, I’m not a very good author. I don’t want to write the same character all the time.

So when you see a character of mine that you don’t like as much, whether that’s because s/he’s always afraid, or too anxious to please, or actually quite nasty, just remember–it’s all a part of me. In a way, everything you see in one of my books tells you something about me. You’ll see the nasty pieces of me as well as the pretty pieces.

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