I don’t usually go in for blog memes, but Isabella E. Marks posed a great one on her blog, originating with this quote:
“Everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.”
H. Jackson Brown Jr.
So, her challenge was: What are you afraid of? What do you love? What have you lost?
Personally, these are uncomfortable and revealing questions for me. But I think they are exceptional questions to ask your characters, when you’re forming them. And if the answers you come up with are too standard, too obvious, too pat, then you probably need to go back to the drawing board and conceive of a more complex character.
Another interesting exercise for creating rich, realistic characters is to examine what they might have in their pocket or their purse. Consider this masterclass from the Scottish Book Trust.
Okay… my answers, which will reveal me to be a very poor model for a fictional character.
What are you afraid of?
This one is easy. Mediocrity. I’m terrified of being mediocre. If you think this seems like a small thing, consider this: I simply won’t do anything I don’t think I can do very well. That becomes rather paralyzing.
What do you love?
I love people, situations and things which contain paradoxes. People who are, for instance, generous but have violent tempers or who are both kind and corrupt or who are immensely sexually attractive and also physically ugly. I’m not just attracted to people like this. I tend to fall in love with them. However, only if they are aware of their own paradox. If they’re unaware, they don’t interest me. Situations that are both terrifying and arousing, or awe-inspiring and tawdry, or horrific and somehow funny, too. Things which, in some way or another, are anachronisms, defy their own purpose, cancel themselves out. (I have a thing for fountain pens)
What have you lost?
Although I was brought up in a pretty critical and jaded family, I guess that for a long time, unconsciously, I felt my innate anti-authoritarianism was simply a knee-jerk kick against the pricks reaction. Somewhere inside me I still harboured the hope that, in most cases, institutions and people with authority were basically benign and well-intentioned. I’m not sure when it started to dawn on me that, with very few and notable exceptions, this was not the case. Authority almost always simply serves itself and the perpetuation of its position of authority. I can’t say that one day I just woke up and knew this. But now, in middle age, I feel the loss of that illusion. It’s not a sharp pain. It’s a terrible, chronic dull ache.
The other thing I have lost – and this pain is worse than the first and more acute – is friends. In the late 80s and early 90s, I lost almost all my closest, longest-termed friends to HIV. It changed me and I’ve never recovered from it. I sat by their besides. I helped swab out their mouths. I changed their sheets with gloves on. I listened to their regrets. I watched some fight like tigers. I watched others go willingly. I held their hands, wasting away and bony, as they died. I think I lost most of my ability to make close and deep friendships after this. I am still, 20 years later, very hesitant to take someone too deeply into my heart. It has made me a difficult person to be friends with.