Gustave Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” When I searched the phrase, I came up with a number of results, many of which were student or professor pages asking what he meant by the statement. Some of the answers looked for biographical points of similarity; others looked for similarities in personality traits or temperament, and they found a few. None of the results matched my take on the statement.
When Flaubert says that he and Bovary are the same person, he is merely stating a fact every writer should embrace. Our memorable characters are us, and if they are not, they are not memorable.
Any real person is, of course, too complex, and too multifaceted to fit into a fictional character. No fictional character, however complex, has the dimensions of a real person. Nonetheless, we need to recognize our characters, and we need to know them well. We need to be able to pick the pieces of them out of our mirror.
We need not always be conscious of this process when creating our characters, but we can be.
John Glore, Associate Artistic Director at South Coast Repertory Theater, taught a playwriting seminar back in the ’90’s. He had an exercise that went like this: List a dozen of your own personal characteristics, i.e. fun-loving, stubborn, and so forth. Next, split the characteristics into groups of three, four items each, in any way that seems to make sense to you. Then, use the three trait-clusters to create three separate characters. Finally, a comet is going to hit and destroy the Earth in ten minutes. Write a ten-minute play with the three characters reacting to this event.
A fun exercise that makes a good point: Just because they’re all c’est moi doesn’t mean they’re all alike. Au contraire, we’ve got all sorts of folks living inside us. The trick is discovering who they are, and where they live.
As writers, most of us do this very well, and quite unconsciously. The first appearance of a character in our brain may be inspired by someone we know, a mother-in-law, an ex-boss, an acquaintance, or even someone famous. For that inspiration to flesh out and begin breathing on its own, so to speak, we need at some level to be moved by that character’s situation, to learn where they’re coming from, and to empathize with them, to feel something about where they’re going. We need to invest ourselves in them. This is true of villains as well as heroes, monsters as well as saints.
Every successful character has at least one over-arching priority, one desire, belief, or goal. More often, they have conflicts clusters of needs, desires, and goals, two or more of which conflict with one another. The good characters are a little bad, and the bad ones, a little good. The key to moiness is to empathize with your verbally abusive, chemically dependent, good-for-nothing, s.o.b., and to be quite judgmental toward your law-abiding nice guy or gal.
Most of the time, the author doesn’t want to be too recognizable in his/her characters. There are exceptions of course, but the thing that prevents us from creating characters that are too recognizably nous is that we cannot truly see ourselves as others do. We have the perfect view from the inside, but only others see the outside. When we look in the mirror, we might as well be wearing goggles with Vaseline smeared on them. We’re flipped: left is right, and right is left. We focus on the blemishes. Our image is distorted, like that map of the U.S., as drawn by a New Yorker. We are so used to ourselves, we don’t see anything remarkable there. The last thing I think of when I look in the mirror (especially first thing in the morning) is “Oh, look, what a fascinating character!”
But I guess I am. And I know you are, too.