In my last post on Suffering and Inspiration, I mentioned that an author’s life can often give birth to the ideas for their characters. There are good reasons for this. A good character is built on events and people that an author has experienced. The human experience and other humans are, more often than not, stranger than fiction. Creating a character based on someone (or several someones) who is real makes the character believable, attainable, and either loveable or hateable (yes, I made that word up). This is what makes a character like Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, or Frodo from Lord of the Rings so wonderfully heroic—we can relate to them. And it is also what makes characters like Mr. Wickham and Saruman so deliciously evil.
The fact is, it is nearly impossible to create a character that is not based on reality. If we try, the result is a character like Bella Swan from Twilight—sorry, no normal girl can relate to her. A good story needs good characters that the reader can really “know” in order to absorb the author’s message.
I recently watched the film Saving Mr. Banks. (I highly recommend it, by the way. Just be sure to have tissues.) That film captures precisely what I am trying to say. Ms. Travers’ characters from Mary Poppins are all based on someone from her life. There is so much more to the story than jumping into paintings and dancing penguins, because the characters are real. On the surface, Mary Poppins is a childhood heroine, but she is not there to save the children. On closer inspection of the characters, who is the one that really needs saving, the one who is so frustrated with life? The children’s father! Ms. Travers was trying to bring hope into her own life, because her own father could not be saved.
In the film, Mr. Disney says, “George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” This is true, insofar as a storyteller can create a tangible character. The closer a reader can feel to the character, the more effective it will be. Authors are ‘hope makers’ and hopeful people need friends. If an author can succeed in making a reader befriend his characters, then he will have done his job.