Every writer does it: bases a character’s persona on the attributes of friends, neighbors and relatives. They steal their sister’s eyes, a co-workers meticulous habit, and a teacher’s grating personality to create a character. These little pieces make up the whole of someone new.
Yet, it’s not enough. An example:
If you know me, then you know I’m a fan of Alice Cooper. I’ve been with Alice through the good, the bad and the WTF?
Through it all, he’s an interesting character, clever and witty, and sometimes very surprising in lyrics and attitude.
I often think about Alice when I need a really creepy character. He’d make an awesome mad scientist – or evil sorcerer. No haircut necessary. He could even keep the make up.
As a writer, I could stop there and consider only the most hyped facets of his stage persona, just the parts that people see:
- He keeps boa constrictors for pets.
- His most-used stage props are: an electric chair, a guillotine, a straight-jacket, and
- (well, there’s no getting around it) a corpse named Cold Ethyl. Alice keeps Ethyl in the refrigerator until he’s feeling particularly amorous.
I’ve got enough material right there to write a trilogy about the Mad Scientist Alice.
This is the easy part: I know what my character looks like, his mannerisms, maybe even what he sounds like. I can see that he’s got an abnormal (perhaps) fixation on death…and that he’s so hard up he keeps his woman handy in the Frigidaire: always ready for a date. (Not much conversation there, but at least Alice doesn’t have to set himself up for failure and heartache at every turn.)
It’s not too hard to see where this story could go. But, oh, how cardboard!
This two-dimensional embodiment might only resonate with other mad scientists. Are you feeling anything for him?
Even if Alice is the antagonist in this story, we need him to be more than black and white to be interesting. In fact, if he were more white than black, if we could understand him, relate to him…even, sympathize with him, the story will be more satisfying.
If you learn anything about Alice Cooper here (and that’s not a requirement), know that he’s an eternal ephemeral: reinventing himself for each album. It keeps the music fresh, allows him to try some new things, and yet, at the core, remain Alice. Despite his darkness, he’s ever-evolving: learning, changing and growing. Just like almost everyone else you meet.
And if you dig deeper into his experiences, you might find that one facet that shaped him into the man he is.
Was it the time he spent in the hospital where he nearly died?
I was gone for fourteen days, I coulda been gone for more
Held up in the intensive care ward, lyin’ on the floor
Or was it all that time he spent in the looney-bin, drying out from alcoholism?
Paint on my cruel or happy face and hide me behind it
It takes me inside another place where no one can find it
Escape: I get out when I can. I escape anytime I can
It’s all escape, I’m crying in my beer. Come on, let’s escape. Just get me out of here
Was it high school, when he didn’t live up to his teacher’s expectations?
Hey Mrs. Cranston, where are you takin’ me?
I feel like a lifer in the state penitentiary
She wanted an Einstein, but she got a Frankenstein…
Was it the time he got raped?
Finally got a ride, some old broad down from Santa Fe, she was a real go-getter
She drawled so sweetly, “I think, child, that things’ll get better.”
“Yes, I read the Bible”, she said, “I wanna know of you.”
We pulled off the highway… I opened the back door, she was greedy
I ran through the desert…alone raped and freezing, alone down in Mexico
(Now, this next example is a total over-simplification of the lyrics and the entire concept album, but work with me, okay?)
Was it about the death of a child Alice knew very well?
I don’t want to see you go, I don’t even want to be there
I will cover up my eyes and pray it goes away
You’ve only lived a minute of your life
I must be dreaming please stop screaming
I don’t like to hear you cry– you just don’t know how deep that cuts me
I don’t want to feel you die
Maybe it’s a simple “love gone wrong” story, we can all relate to that:
Somebody saw you at the station
You had your suitcase in your hand
You didn’t give no information, You walked off with another man
I’m always standing in the shadows, baby,
I watched you give yourself away
You take them home into your bedroom
You had another busy day
Experience after experience sees Alice sucking it up and moving on:
If there is a tear on my face, It makes me shiver to the bones
It shakes me, Babe, It’s just a heartache that got in my eye
And you know I never cry ,I never cry
Through it all, Alice seems to remain a man who walks on the dark side: a bit demented, a lot sick-o.
But underneath, Alice is vulnerable: he nearly died after spending weeks in the hospital, he couldn’t live up to a teacher’s expectations, he was raped by an older woman. He spent weeks in an insane asylum trying to dry out. He’s experienced the death of a child. His woman sleeps with other men. He keeps it all bottled up inside.
I’m stuck analyzing Alice Cooper’s lyrics to determine what shaped him.
You can use the everyday experiences of the people you meet on the subway, in bars, where you work (be careful with this one!). Listen to them talk and jot down their feelings about things that have happened.
Or, use my old stand-by: the newspaper and the evening news. Those quotes or sound-bytes the reporters pull out to emphasize the story can reveal a lot about what people are thinking when the event happened.
Experiences shape people. Thoughts and feelings of that experience becomes the meat of a character. They shape a person’s motivations and impel them to act in certain ways. They make a character real.
Reveal these experiences to your reader, build on them, show how they affect your character, and you’ve got something someone will relate to. If we show the reader just how bad Alice’s personal baggage is, Alice the Mad Scientist might actually be the person they root for in the story.
Write your characters real and your readers will keep coming back for more.