I’m honored to say that Anne Clinard Barnhill is my friend. She’s part of my treasured Book Pregnant author group, and someone who is easy to talk to and admire even from far away. You can read here how Anne just finished a year of cancer treatment. and here you can read the story of Anne’s life in 250 words! (Everything Anne writes is worth reading!)
Below Anne shares her thoughts on fictional characters: How do they originate? Are they based on real people? Are they figments of an author’s imagination? Tell us your experiences in the comments! (I’m thinking now about the characters I’m writing and know that they’re sprinkled with bits of real folks I know. But just who? I’ll never tell!)
Please welcome Anne Clinard Barnhill to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Writing Fictional Characters
In preparation for this blog, I inquired of my husband what question he would ask his favorite author, Patrick O’Brian, if he had the chance. He thought about it for a minute and then said, “I’d ask him where he got the character of Dr. Maturin. Everyone loves that character. I want to know whether Maturin is based on someone O’Brian knew, or whether O’Brian just made him up.”
Readers do seem intrigued by the characters that emerge on our pages. They want to know on what real person the character is based. There is an underlying assumption writers automatically create word-people who mirror a flesh-and-blood people. And, sometimes, it’s true. Sometimes it’s true whether the writer means to do it or not. I’d written halfway into my first novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, before I realized my hero, Arthur Brandon, was really my husband in an idealized version.
And, I confess when I write what I call ‘revenge’ fiction, (that’s a story where I punish someone who has hurt or angered me) I create a thinly veiled caricature of the offending person. My revenge fiction is never successful but it sure is fun to write. But that’s what’s wrong with basing characters on real people. It never really works. Except when it does.
Sometimes writers can capture the essence of a real person and, sometimes, the story will work for them. But for me, the real juice comes when the character appears on the page by surprise and acts in ways that shock me. If a character startles me, I fall in love; I know that character will find a home somewhere in my writing. A poem, a short story, a novel—somewhere that lively person will appear and, hopefully, surprise and delight a reader, too.
But where did that character come from? I suspect characters come from bits and pieces of people we know or have read about. Perhaps in the deep, dark, recesses of our psyches these beings are cobbled together, a sort of Frankenstein of the soul. Perhaps the Muse really does whisper a character into our ears. That happened to me once—the whole story was told in the voice of one woman who did seem to speak to me. It was the easiest story I’ve ever written. Or perhaps Jung had it right and these ideas are floating around in the collective unconscious, just waiting for the right person to come along and jot it all down.
The truth is, I don’t know where my characters originate. Perhaps from a face I see in on a crowded beach. Maybe from a word or phrase I read in a poem. Ghosts, angels, demons, all possibilities. Or, as Scrooge says, maybe they come from ‘an undigested bit of beef.’
Anne Clinard Barnhill has been writing professionally for almost twenty-five years, publishing articles and short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The author of three books and a poetry chapbook, Ms. Barnhill enjoys writing in a variety of genres. She also loves to tickle the ivories, play bridge and most especially, assume her role as the superhero Bottom Woman, a game she plays with her 5-year-old grandson.
Anne’s debut novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, was released in January, 2012. Her poetry chapbook, COAL, BABY, was also released in 2012 from Finishing Line Press. Anne’s new book, QUEEN ELIZABETH’S DAUGHTER, will be released from St. Martin’s Press in March, 2014.