A number of years ago, I left my job and my country and moved to France. I had long held a desire to improve my French which I had taken throughout school and to experience a country I had a connection to via my father, aunt and grandmother who had emigrated there from Greece for a time before finally moving to Canada.
I chose to study French in Montpellier, an elegant medieval city in southern France – not too far from Provence to the east and Spain to the west. It’s the capital of Languedoc and its university dates back to the 13th century. In fact, the infamous Nostradamus attended the university’s School of Medicine in 1529 – although he was apparently expelled very soon after his enrolment.
Montpellier is set in a beautiful region of France – in one direction lies the sea – the Bay of Lions and the seaside town of Palavas Les Flots where I languished many an afternoon after classes – and the other direction was rolling hills and vineyards. But more importantly I chose to apply there because my school housed the second largest English language library outside of Paris. I figured I could live without English television and movies for six months – but books? No way!
My time in France was in some ways extremely isolating. I felt that I got a tiny taste of what it was to be a new immigrant to Canada (something my parents and grandparents experienced) – not being a native speaker and being so far from what was familiar. Without my family and friends I only had myself to rely on and consequently spent a great deal of time alone. Slowly I made some new friends – other “older” students like myself. The majority of the students in my classes were Swedish and tended to congregate with each other. They were 18 and enjoying the sun – I didn’t blame them. But already having graduated university – I was kind of past the collegiate stage of life.
Interestingly my isolation precipitated and improved my writing. I had lugged my laptop and printer across the ocean and I began working on short stories and articles.
It was an intense period – that continued when I moved to London and went to work as an office temp – but that’s a different story! In the end it was an extremely rewarding time. I guess you could say it helped to build my character.
Now character is paramount when writing fiction. The people you create are what drive your stories and they’re who the readers invest in, relate to, aspire to be or learn they should never be like. Fictional characters – you can love or hate them but they should always be memorable and the very best are always multi-dimensional.
“Get to know your characters as well as you can, let there be something at stake, and then let the chips fall where they may”.
~Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Now very occasionally characters can just leap out of your imagination fully formed – like the goddess Athena – but most times they are a process of investigation. Characters are built and the more foundation they have, the easier writing your story and/or novel becomes.
Some writers might learn about their characters as they move through their story or novel. For me, I often see and hear my characters in my mind first and get a gut feeling about their basic emotional essence and then I build the story around them. I spend time figuring out their name, their ethnic background and their family history but not so much about their personal tastes.
When it comes to building fictional characters, here’s a few methods I’ve tried myself and also plan to try in the future:
The Proust Questionnaire: It wasn’t created by Vanity Fair magazine though they’ve been using it to interview subjects in the back page of their issues for eons. It also wasn’t created by Marcel Proust, the eccentric French author of “Swann’s Way”. Interestingly Proust is one of the authors I read in the original French during school in Montpellier. He could and did make a multi-page meal out of eating a cookie!
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
Proust is said to have popularized the questionnaire as a parlour game that reveals an individual’s true nature. Some of the questions are:
How would you like to die? On what occasions do you lie? What is your idea of perfect happiness?
LINK TO FULL PROUST QUESTIONNAIRE
Interview the characters of your story or novel and see what they reveal to you!
Astrology Chart: Okay, I am the first to admit I have a fascination with astrology. I read at least four different horoscopes a day. But above all astrology is the study of character.
If you crack open a book on the subject or go to any website it will list positive and negative traits of each sign. Say I decide my protagonist is a Scorpio and my antagonist is an Aries…
Reading through the traits and behaviour of my character who I have deemed an Aries or a Scorpio – gets me brainstorming about how they would deal with problems and obstacles, how they behave romantically, as a friend, what their inner fears and insecurities could be and the pitfalls of their behaviour and what they need to learn on their journey – their “emotional arc” essentially.
Jungian Psychology and the “Shadow”: It’s a writer’s job to be fascinated with human nature and what makes people tick – why they behave in certain ways and what impulses drive their actions. A good writer is sort of an amateur psychologist – delving into the psyche of their characters.
Carl Jung was a famous Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology. He believed that every human being had a “shadow self” –an inner opposite, an inner demon, an inner darkness. He believed in order to be a fully integrated being you had to “embrace your inner demon”.
Tapping into your protagonists and antagonists’ “shadows” is one way to explore their most innermost drives, fears and thoughts.
Use those “shadows” to explore them – to create well-developed and fascinating characters.
You might also want to tap into your own “shadow self” when you’re writing. Don’t be afraid to take those hidden impulses and feelings and let them out to play on the keyboard or with pen and notebook. You might be surprised where your “inner demon” takes you and your characters.
Read Working with The Shadow: A Writer’s Guide by RJ Wolfe in Artifice Magazine for more.
Hopefully your journey will find a truth – which is ultimately what all fiction – no matter what genre you chose to write – aspires to do.
I must have a dark side also If I am to be whole. ~Carl Jung
My own personal experience of isolation in a foreign city where I wasn’t fluent in the language and I didn’t know many people made me seek out connection and communication in ways I hadn’t before. It was intriguing to find that out about myself – to learn new facets of my own character, to figure out my own truths and my own shadows.
It’s similar when writing fiction. As a writer you’re both a creator and a stranger in a strange land. It’s up to you to choose what you want to do…but if you take your time with character development (whether the characters are human, beast, or machine) and be open to the process and try a few exercises – you’ll find that your characters start to choose for themselves and reveal aspects you never imagined when you started!