Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who Are Your Characters?

January 21, 2009
I know that the #1 question asked authors is supposed to be "Where do you get your ideas?" but almost as often I'm asked, "Is your main character based on you?"

Hmmm. I've heard tons of authors answer this as, "Yes and no, all my characters are me in a way" to believe that's the truth.

But am I my main characters? Are you?

Well, my most successful main character to-date is Derek Stillwater. Raised in the Congo and other places by missionary physicians, he has a PhD in biochemistry, retired as a Colonel from Army Special Forces and works as a reluctant troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security.

On the surface, Derek and I don't have a lot in common. But... 

I have a degree in microbiology and public health. My parents, though not physicians, were quite conservative from a religious point of view. I never served in the military. However, a key word here might be "reluctant" and I understand Derek very well from that point of view. Both Derek and I are believers that sometimes you do things just because they have to be done and you can do them. (In the 4th Die Hard movie this is referred to as "being THAT guy" and it's very well-handled there, I thought).

Let's look at Derek a little more closely. He lives on a boat. He likes to kayak. He's a neurotic hypochondriac in that as a specialist in biological and chemical warfare he's convinced he's going to die from exposure to some toxin or rare disease. He's constantly threatening to quit his job, but he's completely reliable. He has little regard for chain of command and even less patience with protocol and SOP.

I think we're getting a little closer here to what Derek and I have in common, although it might just be to a degree. I don't live on a boat though there's a romance to it that appeals to me a lot. I love to kayak. I am something of a neurotic hypochondriac, although I'm better about it than I used to be. This constantly threatening to quit my job thing but being reliable anyways is spot-on (as a freelancer I do this less, but I still have the occasional client where I rant and rave and swear I'll never work for them again and then go ahead and work for them). As for that last sentence, yeah, that's me, but that's also most people at least in their heads. And it's also sort of standard American "hero" things.

Meg Malloy, in my novel DIRTY DEEDS, has the obvious difference of being a woman. I don't think I have much in common with Meg, who was a gifted computer geek who opened her own company and sold it for millions of bucks at the height of the dot-com bubble. But... I was asked if Meg was based on my wife. I had to pause and think about that and decided that, no... and  yes.

Partly yes because if you're a man and you write about a woman (and from the POV of a woman, in this case) you're going to have to rely on your imagination and all of your experiences with women. I know Leanne better than any woman on the planet (and she continues to mystify and surprise me, go figure), so consciously or unconsciously I probably asked myself how she would have reacted or what she would have felt in various situations Meg found herself in. Meg also has little regard for protocol, formality or chain of command. She's a problem solver. She has a fierce, strong personality. She doesn't quit. She's outspoken. Impulsive, in some ways. Very, very smart.

Still me? Well, maybe the not quitting part, the lack of regard for formality, and even the problem solver thing. Outspoken? Sometimes.

And as point of fact, Meg had been getting offers for her company for a while and kept turning them down. Then, one day while listening to her staff have a full-blown argument over redecorating the company's headquarters, she got up from the staff meeting and called the guy offering to buy her company and said, "Make me an offer." Now THAT, I'm afraid, DOES sound like me.

Which brings me finally to Dr. Theo MacGreggor, the main character in my collection of novellas, CATFISH GURU. He's a PhD in toxicology, divorced, father of a young son. He worked in a biotech company and ended up consulting with the medical examiner's office as a forensic toxicologist. Mac is basically me with a better education, a failed marriage and one son instead of two. Give me the experiences of Mac, drop me down in his life and I'm him. We even lived in the same house, although since there was no wife the furnishings were a little different. Mac was me, not in a Walter Mitty fantasy--living on a boat, having millions of dollars, being a badass tough guy, etc.--but me if I were someone else. When Mac wasn't involved in murder cases he was involved in teaching college classes, his own lab's research, daycare, shopping for kids' clothes, changing diapers, etc.

So the answer, not surprisingly, is yes ... and no.

How about you? Are your characters you? Are you characters you as you wished you were?

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I guess I wouldn't actually want to be like the character Mary and I write about -- a sixth century Byzantine eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian. However, he's a lot like me. He's rather dour, with a somewhat bleak view of the world, albeit with better reason for it than me. In particular he feels the injustice of the world, and has no faith in established authority to administer justice, despite the fact that he's part of the authority. In our books and stories the murderers are almost never (i can't recall exactly) turned over to the authorities in the end. Justice is meted out in some other way, or not at all. This isn't quite as peculiar as it might sound because, like me, John is an outsider. Of course his physical condition places him apart, and also he is a secret Mithran (a pagan) at a Christian court. He is pretty much doing what he's doing to survive, as I've done, but he's operating at a much higher level.

John is also highly principled, and utterly honest, traits which I reckon he gets from co-author Mary. And how much of what I've described might also be her doing, or what else she might see of her in John I can't say.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Based on our communications for the last, what?, eight years? I would think both you and John have a certain reticence as well.

9:33 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

They are generally me if...

But I'm getting to the point where my characters are more and more different from me. Just based on numbers, I had to start making them different, or else I'd be writing the same character over and over again. My current character is nothing like me.

But I say that, and I really took an aspect of me, changed it to something else, and amplified it. So I don't know, LOL.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Dara said...

There are certain aspects of my MC that are me. She's can be a bit on the irrational side and think with her emotions first (like me) and she's got a couple of quirks of mine--like she can't sit still for long periods of time without twitching a foot or shifting around uncomfortably.

However, she's a lot braver than I am and she doesn't stutter or hesitate when she's speaking about something that she's passionate about (unlike me). She's also an incredibly talented violinist--something I always dreamed of doing. The resemblences end there, especially in the family department, as she's half Japanese and the illegitimate daughter of a mob boss.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Some parts of them are me, some parts of them are people around me. I've always been told I have a problem with authority, (mostly because I ask questions they can't answer) but I've learned to deal. Just yes 'em to death and do whatever the hell you want anyway.
Most of my main characters do this too. They push the limit to a certain extent without going overboard.
Sometimes I meet people and I love them! Love their personal style and voracious love of life. These kinds go in my book too. Even if only snippets of their personality.
So yes and no. It comes from everywhere.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Leon Basin said...

You have a great blog here! Thanks for sharing with your fellow writers. I would love to learn more from you. If you have free time, to chat. Please, let me know.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

E-mail me.

5:59 AM  
Anonymous Zoe Winters said...

hehe. Yes...and no.

I'm mystified though by the people who say there is no part of them in their character. Like it's some horrible writer crime. You can only write out of your own brain, not someone else's. So whether you do it with self awareness or not, each writer (IMO) colors their characters with some of them or "how they would feel if this and that were true in their life."

Not to say we can't sometimes stretch far out, still. And there is a lot of Tom in a lot of my heroes.

10:11 AM  

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