Thursday, September 20, 2012

Where Characters Come From: Carter Franklin

Carter Franklin
Concept art by Evan Ferrell

"Ideally, the characteristics that were inspired by friends, family and strangers work together to create a new whole, molded by the experiences the characters have when they are dropped into the world the writer builds for them."

Until his father’s accident, Carter was a lot like myself: a kid with an active imagination and a passion for nature, growing up in a beautiful part of the country. Carter’s guilt forces him to put his imaginary life away and try to grow up too quickly. Though I’ve never put my imaginary life away, I’ve always struggled to balance it with the responsibilities of life. At times I’ve taken long vacations from it to bury myself in school or work only to discover that all aspects of my life suffered for it.

No one can escape their imagination. We use it every day. Any time you picture someone in your head and they aren’t standing right in front of you, you’re using your imagination. Even if they are standing right in front of you, you are using it. The pictures we carry of our friends and family are constructs of our imaginations built from the experiences we have with them. They aren’t the picture others have of them. They aren’t even the picture the person has of themselves. We use our imaginations to create a theme of that person, for good or ill, and that theme changes the more we learn about that person. If we ignore the power of our imagination, give up the control we have over how we use it, we can fall victim to the most destructive assumptions we make about people, places and cultures.

What does this have to do with Carter’s story? One of the major themes of Dreamings is perception--of one’s self, of others and of the world around us. Carter believes a lot of things about himself. Some are true, some aren’t, but all are the results of Carter’s imagination trying to make sense of the events of his life and his part in it.

“Write what you know…”

I ran track in high school and loved it, so it was easy to cast Carter and Steven as runners. Track meets invoke every sense, the feel of a baton slapping into your hand, the taste of sweat, the sound of the wind roaring past your ears, even the smell of barbecue (at least where I grew up). Of course the connection between a runner and a young cheetah was an obvious fit.

As Carter mentions early in the book, track also has the unique characteristic of being a team sport that you participate in alone. There are teamwork aspects--distance runners learn how to pack together, drawing on the energy of each other’s pace to stave off fatigue, as well as the mental blow dealt to a competitor when a group of you pass them all at once. Of course, the relay races also require coordination, but only for the brief seconds of the handoff. Once the baton is in your hand it’s all you. For a kid who grew up being picked on for being different, joining a sports team, no matter what the sport, helps to cross the boundary between outcast and acceptance. It was a perfect match for Carter.

“...or what you want to know.”

Characters often write themselves. No, I don’t speak Latin. I’m also not very good at either algebra or calculus. I have always been fascinated with puzzle solving though, and I see both linguistics and mathematics as puzzles. The key to both is uncovering the patterns. They each have a sense of logic about them and I think that’s why they popped up in Carter’s daily life. By “popped” I mean that they were never something I chose for Carter to be good at. One of the earliest scenes I wrote had Carter and Steven sitting in Carter’s basement sanctuary. Instead of band posters, gaming paraphernalia or sports pennants hanging on the walls, Carter’s shelves were filled with esoteric books, like “The Life and Times of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz” and a Latin translation of “The Tao of Pooh.”

This part of Carter’s personality appeared spontaneously when I looked at the basement through Steven’s eyes. Subconsciously I was asking myself how other people would see Carter, as opposed to how he would see himself. Like me, algebra isn’t Steven’s strongpoint, so Carter’s brilliance at math presented another aspect of the symbiotic relationship between them I was looking for. Carter helps Steven with math and Steven helps Carter with high school politics, whether he wants it or not.

Most of the Latin in the book has been run through my personal linguistics expert, my nephew Clint. If Carter has my imagination and athletic experiences then in many ways he has Clint’s brain. Clint has always been brilliant--adept at piano, listening to classical music at the age of 7, and always able to cut to the heart of an argument. His teachers had to create additional summer reading lists for him because he finished the normal list in weeks. He once recommended both Fahrenheit 451 and one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels I can’t remember. This wouldn’t have been so unique except that he was twelve at the time.

“Am I in your book?”

If you are the friend of a writer, the answer to this question is almost always going to be no. And, yes. It’s impossible to create genuine, believable characters out of nothing. Even if you are inspired by a random person in a grocery store, the final incarnation of that character will be informed by the people you know.

Personality traits of my other nephews found their way into Carter as well. His love for old manuscripts comes from my nephew Jesse, and Jesse’s older brother Josh was a track athlete like myself. Both Carter and Laynie (Carter’s baby sister) are named after my brother's youngest kids.

Carter’s body type is a blend of myself and other runners I know, while his freckles come from my childhood best friend, Craig. It wasn’t until I’d been working on the series for years that I remembered the centerpiece of Craig's bedroom had been a painting of a cheetah; interesting how those experiences influence artistic endeavors. Carter’s freckles help to tie him to Roary as well, in the same way I always thought that painting was perfect for Craig. Like the cheetah, Craig was tall and lean, patient, a little quiet and very perceptive. With the exception of height, these were all characteristics I wanted for Carter.

With few exceptions, every character will have a mix of the personalities, quirks and physical traits of the people the writer knows. They might also possess characteristics the writer either admires in others, or would like to see in themselves. Like Carter, Steven’s character is inspired by some of the most interesting personalities I’ve had the pleasure to know, and I think that’s why he continues to be a reader favorite. Jamie, on the other hand, has a few characteristics borrowed from friends or family, but is largely inspired by skills and personality traits I admire or wish I had myself.

Yet, after all this discussion, it’s important to remember that characters cannot be easily divided into parts. Ideally, the characteristics that were inspired by friends, family and strangers work together to create a new whole, molded by the experiences the characters have when they are dropped into the world the writer builds for them. Just like the reader, a character’s personal image changes when they learn what’s truly important to them, and how better to learn that than when the drama of the story forces them to reach beyond their believed limitations and become who they’re truly meant to be.

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