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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, October 28, 2005

how Frankenstein does it

A thick fluffy overcast eventually yielded rain. Rain falls steadily now in the dark of afternoon.

Still on vacation hours, I moseyed back into chapter 19 with my morning coffee, again made by Kimmie ("How many scoops?" "Five and a half"). Today I was back at the leading edge of the chapter, working mainly with description of my location. With description I need first of all to put myself in the right mood of sensing the world of my story. I know I have too much descriptive material; I prefer it that way. I prefer to trim away the excess later rather than come up with material to flesh out a skimpy section.

This is imaginative work. I draw on descriptions of the place in my research texts; I've made a few prose sketches based on digital pictures in my Pictorial Library of Bible Lands; and I have open digital images from that same Pictorial Library of a model of ancient Rome in the 2nd century BC. This is a bird's-eye view of the city, contour-modeled, at a date about 100 years before the time of my story. I find it evocative: bluffs, red-roofed temples, dense green copses of trees. I also draw on my own memories of being in Rome. My job is to package these strands into a semblance of living time and place.

All this, of course, in pursuit of my goal of verisimilitude. In a recent e-mail my friend Warren paid me the compliment of singling out my treatment of minor characters for praise. He felt that these are generally lifelike and contribute strongly to the effect of verisimilitude. To paraphrase him, in going about their business in 48 BC, they don't seem to realize that they're not alive anymore. He said that they appear to spring to life with ease (thanks Warren!).

If they spring to life, that's great; but it's not with ease. I put effort into the creation of all my characters, including the minor ones. Generally, anyone who's got a speaking role in my story gets cast as though for a movie. How?

First: I maintain file-folders of pictures of people, clipped from magazines. I have a folder each for men, women, and children. When I finish reading a magazine, I go through it in search of people I might want to cast. Some are celebrities, but most not. I clip the pictures and file them.

Next: when I need a character, I usually make use of a book by Roy Feinson called Animal Attraction, which I bought on a whim in 1999. This quirky, humorous, party-game kind of book is actually very perceptive and clearly the product of much work by its zoologist author. In it you complete a simple 9-question multiple-choice quiz to discover what species of "animal" you are (Feinson has categorized people into 45 different animal types, mostly mammalian with a few birds and a snake thrown in). For each animal he gives a two-page character profile, focusing specifically on the animal as a romantic partner and how it combines with each of the other animal types. Feinson is witty and fun, but his real achievement, to me as a creator, is that he has successfully conveyed a sense of the great differences between people--that two people can be as different as two species of animal. If I think of one person as being like a bat, and another as being like a bison, that gives me a vivid sense of how distinct they are from each other.

Usually I complete Feinson's quiz for a new character (questions like physical size, aggression, gregariousness, and so on). If I know some of these attributes I might use them, but sometimes I use a special random-number generator I created in Excel for the purpose. It gives me nine random numbers in the right ranges, and I get a random animal (actually usually a selection of two or three animals, the way Feinson has arranged his material). If I don't like the animal profile, I spin again. It's fun!

Once I know a character is, say, a mole (Feinson's quick list of mole traits: "observant, dogged, determined, quiet, introspective, unresponsive, indecisive, pessimistic, lonely"), I might start looking through my clipping file for a face to match the personality. I "cast" the character. It has to feel right. But it needs to be a face that I have on file, which limits my options. Sometimes this is good, in that it gives me a look for my character that is somewhat different from what I would expect for the character-type I have in mind.

Finally, a name. I usually know whether my character is Jewish, Greek, Roman, or something else. There are websites with lists of ancient names. I use one of these. Usually, by default, I'll look first under names starting with the same letter as the animal, but I don't necessarily choose one of those.

When I have all the elements, I write the name on the picture, and file it in the folder called "cast characters". I also write the character's name, animal type, list of traits, and anything else I know about him or her in the document called Characters, an alphabetical list of all the characters in my story.

Thus my methodology to create lifelike characters: people who feel real, like someone actually observed. Based on Warren's appreciation, I feel that it's working.

Oh: and what kind of animal am I? Glad you asked. I'm an owl: "contemplative, eloquent, sober, principled, sincere, verbose, preachy, sanctimonious, overly conservative". Sexy, no?


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