Monday, November 2, 2009

Characterization by Randy Ingermanson

This month, we're kicking off a three-part series from Randy Ingermanson on characterization.

Creating: Your Characters Aren't You*
by Randy Ingermanson

At least twice a month, I get a letter that runs roughly like this:

"Hi Randy:

I'm writing a novel about something horrible that happened in my life. Nobody would ever believe what those dirty rotten scoundrels did to me, so I'm making it a novel. It's gonna be great! The only question I have is what legal problems I'll face when they read my book. Can I get sued, even if it's all the exact truth? Do I have to change their names? I want them to suffer!

Joe Wannawriteanovel"

Before you read on, think about that for a minute. How would you answer Joe? Can he get sued for telling the truth?

I usually begin my answer to this kind of e-mail by pointing out that I'm not a lawyer, and therefore nothing I say can be construed as legal advice. Then I say that, so far as I understand it, telling the truth is not libel, but it can be invasion of privacy. So even if a novel tells the absolute truth, the author might still be sued for making private details public.

I usually advise Joe to make a few eeny weeny changes: Change the names of the characters. Change their genders. Change their personal descriptions. Change their ethnic heritages. Change their personalities. Change the facts of the story so that nobody could possibly recognize the circumstances and guess that the people involved are friends or family of Joe. Change everything.

In short, write fiction.

In my view, the legal issues aren't really the biggest problem with writing a novel based on real people. The real problem is that real situations involving real people make really boring fiction.

In fiction, nothing is written in stone. If you need to edit a Gertrude into a Gary, then you must have the freedom to make that change. If you need to merge five fuzzy characters into two memorable ones, then you must feel free to merge. If your lead character needs a horrible seventh-grade experience involving a tarantula, a blindfold, and an icepick, then you have to be able to conjure up that memory.

You can't afford to hamstring your fiction with an inconvenient set of facts. If you base your novel on something that really happened, then every time you need to tweak your plot or characters, you'll hear a voice in the back of your head saying, "But it didn't happen that way."

Let's be honest. Fiction is about telling lies. Big, fat, hairy, prevaricating lies. If you want to write about the truth, or approximately the truth, or even something remotely approaching the truth, then the career you're looking for is called "Journalism." It's a fine career choice, but it isn't fiction.

Randy Ingermanson earned a Ph.D. in physics at U.C. Berkeley, which is a wretchedly lame excuse for his friends to have dubbed him a “Mad Genius,” but life isn’t always fair. He is the award-winning author of six novels and one non-fiction book. Randy publishes the world’s largest electronic magazine on the craft of writing fiction, the FREE monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. His ultimate goal is to become Supreme Dictator for Life and First Tiger and to achieve Total World Domination.

* This series was taken from Randy's ezine. Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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