Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Making Characters in Novels Realistic but Not Real

 All novelists have the urge occasionally to be bad and base a character in one of their books closely (very closely) on a friend, relative, or acquaintance. The threat of lawsuits and the potential loss of friends make most us regain our senses. However, quirks of some individuals could sell a novel.

How can novelists create dynamic, realistic characters without getting too real? Hopefully my observations will make you think. I suspect most of you would give an answer similar to mine but with different examples.

First off, I should note no character, except Bug, Sara Almquist’s Japanese Chin dog, in my novels is real. Bug (the character) is based on my own Japanese Chin Bug. He is a pet therapy dog and a black and white ball of fuzz who outsmarts me daily.    

Realistic title characters aren’t all good or all bad. Physicians in early medical mysteries and thrillers were either saintly, like Dr. Kildare, or evil, such as Dr. Moreau. Modern writers want to show a few warts in their lead characters.

However, I didn’t want to trivialize my lead character into being a dizzy snoop who clumsily forces her way into police investigations as occurs in some cozies. Come on, I can’t be the only reader who is flabbergasted at the stupidity (with moments of brilliance or luck) of some lead characters in cozy mysteries. I also didn’t want to produce another neurotic genius like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Let’s face it most physicians and detectives aren’t geniuses; they’re normal people, albeit sometimes smarter or more observant than most.

Sara Almquist, the lead character in my medical thrillers Coming Flu and Ignore the Pain, is an epidemiologist. That profession gives her legitimate reasons to pry into everyone else’s business. She’s normal, but maybe a bit cranky and perhaps dotty about her dog Bug.

Most of the characters are amalgams of real people and fantasy. For example, the dean of the medical school in my medical mystery Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight is a polished, aloof gentleman, but he feels no remorse when he assigns his associate dean Linda tasks that all but turn her into cannon fodder. When I was an associate dean first the graduate school and then the medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I often compared notes with other associate deans. My dean in Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight in is a chimera of dozens of deans with a few flourishes thrown in.

Fantasy characters can participate in real scenes. Although I don’t base my characters on real people, some of my scenes are real. For example, I did climb over the roof of Iglesia de San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia as Sara does in Ignore the Pain. Of course, my trek was leisurely; hers wasn’t.

When I consulted on science and public health issues in the Philippines, United Arab Emirates, and Beirut, I found that my attitudes about their challenges changed as I learned about their problems. In Ignore the Pain, I tried to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of poverty in Bolivia. I hoped my descriptions would be more effective than citing statistics, i.e. six percent of the children born in Bolivia die before their fifth birthday. I also tried to show the evolution of Sara’s and the other consultants’ attitudes and beliefs as they advised locals on complex, nuanced problems. For example, obviously cocaine is dangerous, but the chewing of coca leaves by miners in decrepit mines at thirteen thousand feet is understandable.

Now it’s your turn. How do you create realistic fictional characters?