Skip to content

Where Characters Come From And Why They Feel So Real, by Ben Marshall

Between nine and twenty-four months, a human baby will realise that the baby imitating its every move in a mirror isn’t another baby, but itself.   The child has been learning the concept of ‘self’ versus ‘non-self’, and the mirror is another step along the path of discovering, then internalising, others.  Another step forward comes around the age of four, when toddlers begin lying.

Lying is crucial because the child is now able to ascribe others with mental states that are different from their own; they understand that the person they’re lying to has no actual knowledge of what they’re thinking.  To do this they have to compartmentalise a part of their minds to imagine another’s state of mind, then respond to this best guess in a way that wins a biscuit or one more story before lights out.  Their parents, siblings and close family will each have a compartment that is initially simple: e.g. mother = love, food and comfort.  The internalised “mum” becomes more complex as the child learns to ‘read’ people via behavioural, visual and environmental cues.

‘Theory of mind’ is the term we use to ascribe this crucial aspect of ‘intelligence’ to other humans, and, relatively recently, even to some animals.  It’s the ability to recognise that others exist and think differently from us – to tell ourselves the story of what we think is happening in another mind.  What is fascinating is how readily children ascribe character to others – including to inanimate objects.

Play is a joyful, imaginative exploration of the world that is half external – the dolls or toy trucks – and the internal; imagining and ascribing life and emotional states to those dolls and trucks.  Play is storytelling.

We grow, learn and interact with hundreds of others, and, with the memories of these encounters, we have the foundations for the writer’s ability to produce characters that live and breathe in our minds and on the page.  But creating a plausible character is so much more than simple memory retrieval.

As a scriptwriter, I have to jump from imagining one internal state to another in the blink of a cursor.  In one scene, a grandfather might be counselling a grand-daughter.  In another, a twenty-something’s love triangle is going horribly wrong; in another I explore the middle-aged dilemmas of a married couple.  All these situations and characters have to be imagined, and dialogue and action ascribed to them.  And it’s incredibly easy.  Not easy to do really well, but still easy because, like everyone, I’ve been imagining others’ mental states all my life.

Like everyone, I’ve also experienced many different mental states.  Some of those states are so strikingly distinct it could be said that in those moments of love, anger, joy, fear, abandoned lust or focused intellect, I’ve been many different people.

Then there’s aging.  It seems trite to point out that we’re not the same person we were when we were younger but we haven’t completely discarded the people we were.  We remember how it was and who we were, and we constantly revise our current narratives by comparing them to those of our past.  We constantly refer to the ghosts of our former selves because we can – they still exist within us.

And if you’ve lost a parent, sibling or friend, you’ll know that they too stay with us.  We also carry more ephemeral ghosts; people we know or even met just the once.  The junkie who spent an entire shared train journey outlining the features of his sports shoes and talking about his many overdoses; the Indian gentleman in a Himalayan teashop who spoke impeccably correct English and argued against Partition; the Japanese climber cheerfully prepared to die ‘conquering’ the mountain; the Tibetan nun who liked beer, and spent seven months and seven days in a cave.

And finally, even without this growing crowd in our heads, there’s ourselves.

Few psychiatrists outside the United States believe Multiple Personality Syndrome is real.  The idea that someone could so compartmentalise aspects of themselves that each has a distinct personhood seems improbable.  But isn’t it true that through any active day we think and behave in distinctively different ways?  Our changed states can be called ‘moods’, yes, and we readily acknowledge they all belong to one person – us – but they can be such different states that, judging by our actions, we are not quite the same person we were an hour ago.  Filled with road rage on the motorway home, we are not the sane, smiling reasonable person we were at work.  And when we hold our loved ones, we’ll be transformed anew.

When we first set our characters walking on the path we make, we are superbly equipped to tell their stories because of the crowd within.

From a sketchy beginning, our characters seem to accrete mannerisms, motives and powers to act.  They solidify and develop, becoming more complex, more distinct – more not-us.  They become so distinct from us, yet are so open and comprehensible that we laugh with their successes and weep as we share their pain.  How does such focus emerge, seemingly without effort, from the complexity of our minds and memories?

The answer is that no one really knows.  If our conscious thought processes are the tip of the iceberg, below the waterline is the vast bulk of the unconscious where the real thinking goes on.  From this unknown and unknowable part of our minds, our characters emerge like ova, waiting to be fertilised, and made into a person that we and our readers can believe in.

It is easy to create new characters because we already carry so many within us.  We know what they will do and how they will act because we are constantly imagining the minds of others.

We are born to tell stories and, as we grow, we find the characters we need to tell them.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


Burning LiesTo Ride the WindAngels of VengeanceLife After LifeA Distant LandRotten GodsThe Wreckage

Writing Novels in Australia


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: