by Lauren Kate
I heard somewhere that most writers have the capacity to write just seven original characters. Meaning, I think, the eighth character that comes into the novel (or three novels down the road) resembles at least one of that writer’s existing characters. The similarities could range from voice, to physical description, to how the character views the world.
At first, I thought this sounded pretty harsh. Are our minds really as limited when it comes to articulating unique voices as they are when it comes to remembering numerical digits? (We’re also best at remembering seven of those at time, which is why phone numbers started out that length.)
But soon after I heard that, I was writing a scene in which eight characters all participated in one dialogue while crammed into a room. It was hard! And claustrophobic-making! Each line had to do so much work to make its speaker’s voice distinct. I’d never realized just how difficult it was to come up with (let alone juggle) a number of truly original voices.
I suppose this is why there are archetypes–or some people would say stereotypes. Familiar characters who turn up in stories again and again. The brooding, distant lover. The selfless sidekick. The king or queen overdue for a comeuppance. The unexpected hero.
I can’t think of a story that doesn’t include at least some archetypal characters, but the best stories I’ve read make use of what we already expect from these archetypes and stretch them further into something new. Most writers I know have a type of character or voice they fall back on. For me, it’s the lovable-but-slightly-nuts best friend. In The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove, it’s Kate. In Fallen, it’s Arriane (and probably also Penn), in Torment, there’s a new friend character I’m looking forward to introducing you to. Of course, they’re very different from each other, and I work hard to separate their voices, but it’s because I am aware of this tendency that I monitor it so closely.
I wonder if a writer’s characters resemble one another because real people in our lives often resemble other real people in our lives. For better or for worse. Most of us are guilty of dating the same type of girl or guy over and over again. Some people seek out relationship that remind them of their mother or father. Think about the friends you’ve made across all your walks of life. You can probably break them into groups. There are the crazy ones (A from summer camp, T from college, L from your first job). There are the dependable, great-listener ones. There are the ones you can fall out of touch with for years, then pick up right where you left off. Much like fictional characters, the people in our lives are also very often archetypes.
People ask me whether the characters in Fallen are based on real people I know. They are in a physical sense more than anything else. When I started writing and I needed to picture Daniel, I somehow invoked this good-looking blond guy I went to high school with. We were friends, but never dated–he was actually a bit of a moron, but he fit the bill in terms of how I imagined Daniel’s character to look. I think if this guy ever found out I based such an important character on him, he’d probably keel over from the shock!
Luce’s physical traits are based on my oldest, closest friend–the dark wavy hair, hazel eyes, tiny teeth, etc. When I first started writing her, I pulled some personality traits from this friend, but as I continued with her story, she veered away from my friend into an identity of her own. I share some traits with Luce–like her stubbornness and tendency to get swept away by romance. But if I had to which character closest to me, I’d like to think I’m a crazy combination of Arriane and Penn.
Cam, believe it or not, is inspired (but of course not entirely based) on my husband. When I first met Jason, he was this intriguing combination of very intimidating and very approachable. The perfect model for Fallen‘s bad boy.
The hard thing about writing a four-book series: There are going to be so many more than seven characters by the time I’m done. Which means it’s going to take a lot of work to keep making them unique.
The great thing about writing a four-book series: I have so much time to develop all the characters I’ve already introduced. To learn more about them with every snippet of dialogue they say, every piece of clothing they put on, every experience they have that shapes their–and my–view of the world.
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