.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, June 06, 2005

creating characters and other things

Morning notes: Origins of Scientific Thought, Rubicon, From Eden to Exile, and Alexander the Great. Progress is slow when I'm keying so many works at once, but on the other hand, I get tired of keying one book, and am energized by switching to another. Same way I read.

On to the main course. I opened "17 - Notes" and jumped in keying, grabbing some thoughts that I'd had over the weekend. I just kept going, asking myself questions, then guessing answers. I started:

It's feeling like Alexander, inspired by The Sand-Reckoner, is intrigued by large numbers, and perhaps number theory generally. His young mind races after the ancient questions: how high do numbers go? Is there an end? Where? And if not, what does that mean?

Maybe he built his abacus based on the sand-reckoner, so that it could accommodate large numbers. Maybe has a separate little "register" that tells whether the numbers are of the first order, second order, etc., up to numbers of the "first period." (Does Alexander's abacus fall out--and Sos becomes curious about it?)

And so on. I suppose it's like whacking a flint with iron, generating sparks. The little individual ideas are the sparks. The research is the tinder.

The right ideas can arrive only when the mind is suitably prepared. I think it was Rodolfo Lanciani who said that even genius proceeds incrementally, and not by leaps. The fact is, even straightforward logical thinking leads one to unexpected places.

One of my favorite writing texts is Linda Seger's Creating Unforgettable Characters. I got my copy in 1991, when Warren and I were hard at work on The Odyssey. She boils character creation down to an orderly 6-step process:

1. Through observation and experience, you begin to form an idea of a character.

2. The first broad strokes begin to define the character.

3. You define the character's consistency, so the character makes sense.

4. Adding quirks, the illogical, the paradoxical, makes the character fascinating and compelling.

5. The qualities of emotions, values, and attitudes deepen the character.

6. Adding details makes the character unique and special.

I don't do this for every character, by any means--not even for all the main characters (although I probably should!). But I did do this for Herod, a character I didn't feel I knew at all when I was plotting my story. Here is a selection of notes from the Herod worksheet I made in October 2002:

Character core:
- tiger: a man of power, beauty, prowess, and ambition

- has known wealth and influence all his life: educated in Greek style; knows and appreciates Hellenic culture

- brought into the inner workings of politics, war, and statecraft by his father

- excellent athlete, fighter, and hunter: spends time training, working out, getting coached

- speaks and writes Aramaic, Greek, some Hebrew, some Latin

- attracts women easily and generally has his way with them: promiscuous but emotionally detached: capable of overwhelming charm

- has sharp wit and "monstrous" appetite

- when a tiger speaks, everyone listens; but he doesn't return the favor: self-centered

The Paradox:
- incisive, authoritarian beefcake

- has keen mathematical aptitude: relates to architecture

- bursts of warmhearted kindness for children, especially not his own

- maybe busies himself sometimes with menial tasks, makes a show of service

- inwardly self-critical, even self-chastising: may even see himself as a failure

- hypochondria!

Values, Attitudes, Emotions:
- he is the hunter; maybe feckless and hedonistic until he gets his "prey" in sight, then he stalks it one-pointedly

- believes strongly in Judaism, even if he doesn't practice it fully

- Hellenic in outlook: feels the Jews are bumpkins in many ways, but hold the divine Law...how to merge Law and civilization?

- makes "to do" lists?

- excellent grooming: hair, beard, clothes; maybe a necklace of "trophies"--rings etc. of women he's made love to--conquests

- doesn't like water; can't swim

- punctual, and angry with those who are not...

Had to fish those notes out of my old 3-ring project binder, the one I started back at Gampo Abbey. I haven't made use of all those notes, because Herod has also grown situationally as I have written; I kind of "become" Herod, take on an attitude as I write. But when I had finished them I felt that I was in the presence of a definite character.

Today a little book arrived in the mail: Hillel the Elder by Nahum Glatzer. It's a slim wee little volume. As always, I'll start reading it today, regardless of all the other things I've got on the go. Have to take a peek.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home