Recently I have been listening to a backlog of podcasts from the World Book Club on my Ipod. I listen to authors discuss their weighty award-winning tomes, to where their ideas came from and how their characters developed. And I have begun to reach a conclusion…
While the situations we can place our characters in is endless in the permutations we can devise, there are very few truly original characters out there anymore.
When you cloud watch you lay, preferably on a sunny day in a warm meadow, and gaze up at the sky picking out shapes and pictures in the cloud formations. There is of course never really a castle in the sky or a wild horse galloping or any of the million other potential things our minds create from the mix of shadow and light.
I believe the same is true of our characters, regardless of the subtle nuances we may give them to try to make them individual the reader will take those same details and apply them in relation to someone of their own acquaintance to shape their image of your character. On top of this the majority of reader bring to each new book a wealth of prior knowledge which they use whether knowingly or not to compare and contrast.
As someone who occasionally indulges in a little Chick Lit I know I look out for the classical plot lines be it Pride & Prejudice, Emma or Jane Eyre, then I compare the heroines. I do not mean to in fact until recently I did not even realise that I did it, but I find myself categorising them into Miss Bennett’s, Miss Dashwood’s or Miss Woodhouse’s.
And if I am honest having recognised this I realised that I do the same in other genre’s. If I am reading horror I use Bram Stoker and Anne Rice as my frame of reference, for every genre each reader has favourite writers which shape their taste and the way they read books.
This is not necessarily a bad thing despite the negative way in which I have approached this the reader is able to engage with the characters quicker if they can recognise the basic characteristics. It also allows you to lead the reader to think they know how a character will behave then with a puff of wind you can blow their shape in such a way as to leave the reader breathless, or stunned. Ultimately we cannot control exactly how the reader will view our creation only give them the outline that will hopefully guide them in the direction we ourselves see our characters heading.
But let’s be honest the world would be a far more boring place and the options for discussion so much more limited if while laying looking up at the clouds we all saw the saw castles in the sky.