I was having a conversation with a friend recently, and she asked me about my method for creating a character; what motivations would drive them and what life lessons would shape their personal values? I realized I might very well approach this differently from many, and considering the question made me evaluate my own creative process.
When I was a young boy, just beginning to demonstrate an interest in writing, my mother would encourage me and throw snippets of advice at me about being a better writer. One of the things she talked to me about was a “character outline”; which is the story of the character and their lives before they find themselves enveloped in your story. She gave me a piece of paper with the key information you’d need: where they were born, who their parents were, where they went to school, etc. I found a lot of it a little stilted and forced, but I did see the merits in knowing the people you were going to be writing about; not as literary constructs but real people. After all, if you don’t believe them to be people, why should anyone else?
In a lot of ways I was very, very lucky to come from the family I did. The role models I grew up with were in many ways larger-than-life characters in their own right; from my father, who had grown up two-fisted in Prohibition-era Chicago only to go on and become a Navy fighter pilot whose career would encompass World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and a hundred colorful events in between; to my mother’s father, a Southwestern lawman who had survived gunfights against desperadoes and spent four decades in service. Even my mother, a strong-willed woman with red hair and a fiery Scottish temper to match, grew up independent, tough, and capable even in a culture that treated women more like objects and property than people.
When I really think about it I find myself realizing that nearly every character I’ve created to be the protagonist in my stories possesses at least one of the qualities or viewpoints I found so compelling in my own familial heroes. All are independent, self-reliant people not interested in conflict but not afraid of it either; tough and taciturn individuals who will stand their ground against any and all comers when they believe themselves justified. All believe in honor and integrity and refuse to be bullied.
As a writer, I think the art is more than just being about telling a story; there are important and valuable life lessons that can be imparted to the reader, exposing them to concepts and ideas they themselves might not have seriously thought about before. In today’s society especially, the concepts of self-reliance and self-responsibility seem almost to be dying concepts. There are going to be challenges and trials in every person’s life, and there are going to be failures and disappointments as well. How we rise to those challenges and endure them is the mark of our own character.
I suppose this is why the idea of an independent, self-reliant individual having to stand alone against a crisis is so compelling to me… but having friends you can trust to help you when you need it can be life-saving as well; provided they have the character to stand beside you when it would be easier to run away.
That’s another thing I like to incorporate into my stories: the idea of people used to being able to rely only upon themselves discovering they have friends willing to put themselves on the line, for no other reason that they respect them enough to want to see them prevail. It is possible to celebrate individuality and self-reliance while recognizing that a person strong enough to stand alone is the perfect person to support other independent people to create a society that is stronger overall.