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March, 2005 : Feature:

Characters Real and Imagined

Several times during my recent trip to RadCon1, I got involved in discussions of the appropriate way to present and describe characters in fiction. In the manuscript workshop, an aspiring writer asked how important it was to describe a character's physical appearance in the text. On a panel, this question evolved into a discussion with Joe Haldeman about the differences between characters in novels and characters in short fiction. This led me to spend some time thinking about characterization and how we make folks on the page come to life. In effect, what can we take from the appearance and behavior of people in the real world to apply to characters in fiction?

Now, jump-cut to the death of Hunter S. Thompson, just hitting the news as I write this. Old Duke was a character, in every sense of the word, inserting himself and his bizarrely cockeyed worldview into journalism that read like fiction, or perhaps fiction that read like journalism. He was as real as your typing fingers, and as weird as a wooden birthday cake. Here's Thompson being autobiographical in the pages of Rolling Stone:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive..." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you talking about," he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses.2

There's a hell of a lot of character development in those first few sentences. Dr. Gonzo, the attorney3, is clearly marked in the reader's mind in two sentences. Raoul Duke, Thompson's alter-ego4, is so disconnected from external reality that he doesn't realize he is screaming until Dr. Gonzo points that out to him. In the first two paragraphs of the book, Thompson has clearly established both characters as drug-crazed lunatics, unreliable narrators, and funny as hell.

Weirdest of all, they are real.

Going back to Haldeman, not in conversation, but in print, to see how a major fictional character first comes to life in the first two paragraphs of his classic work The Forever War:5

"Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man." The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn't look five years older than me. So if he'd ever killed a man in combat, silently or otherwise, he'd done it as an infant.
I already knew eighty ways to kill people, but most of them were pretty noisy. I sat up straight in my chair and assumed a look of polite attention and fell asleep with my eyes open. So did most everybody else. We'd learned that they never schedule anything important for these after-chop classes.

Private Mandella is a very clear-cut character—we get age, experience, skills and life perspective in those two paragraphs. Not to mention some setting and world-building.

Haldeman, a veteran himself, would have us believe that Mandella is fictional. Thompson never pretended to be anyone but Raoul Duke. These are two of the most compelling characters in their respective genres, based on the success of the two books.

Referring to the question posed at the RadCon workshop: in neither of these works is the character physically described when introduced. Rather, we are given critical information about their perspective, their actions, and their possible motivations. In other words, their reality isn't dependent on their eye color or what clothes they are wearing.

Taking that to my conversation with Haldeman, the gist of the discussion was whether or not real people could be used as characters in fiction, and from there how short and long fiction differed. He said, in his mild but authoritative style, that he preferred to invent his characters so that they spoke for themselves, that using real people as character models constrained what he could do with the story.

My counter to this was that real people are often far stranger than our imagined characters (viz. Thompson and Acosta), and that if a writer could extract telling details from their experience of people from everyday life, that would make the characters richer and more interesting. Where we eventually landed in this discussion of character origin, inspiration (and yes, even description) was on the difference between short fiction and novel-length fiction.

In short fiction, especially fiction below novella-length6, characters generally do not have time to unfold to an emotional maturity on the page, or to a conceptual maturity in the mind of the reader. It is sufficient to set them in place with one or two key pieces of information—the telling details—that help the reader follow them through the story. That this telling detail might be borrowed from one of Haldeman's drill sergeants, or my own rather strange uncle Big Jay McMinnis, is a sort of shorthand. The writer can represent the character with that detail, then use the original as an internal model for how the character might react or what the character might say.

There is, after all, only so much room in a short fiction piece to accomplish all the various missions of story. Character can run on a thin thread if plot, setting or some other axis of tale-telling has grabbed the reader and slammed them into the wall.

In novels, however, as Haldeman argued, the character doesn't just wander through the story. They grow with the story, develop across the arc of time and plot, and ultimately are transformed. They must have their own inner reality that transcends the page. Haldeman prefers to develop this reality from his own vision as an author, rather than being tethered to the reality of someone outside the manuscript.

Clearly his record speaks for itself.

Yet Hunter S. Thompson had a reality that transcended Raoul Duke, transcended the panels of Doonesbury and the Terry Gilliam film of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas7, invading the American consciousness from a most thinly-fictionalized origin, until he removed himself from our purview the third week in February, 2005.

What's the difference between a real character and an imagined character? Ultimately, perhaps nothing. The imagined characters, if properly developed, are as real in our heads as the people around us on the street. Thompson's reality was transcendent. Haldeman built a reality that became one of the foundational texts of contemporary science fiction.

As for the rest of us, after pausing for a moment of respect to Duke, we go back to our writing.


  1. A highly entertaining convention that meets every President's Day Weekend in Pasco, Washington. (Website.) Disclaimer, I am the Short Story Guest of Honor there next year. [back]
  2. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone, November 1971. [back]
  3. Oscar Acosta in real life, 1935-?, disappeared in the mid-1970s, see Dr. Thompson's "Epitaph" reprinted here. [back]
  4. And ultimately the inspiration for the Doonesbury character of Duke, see the Doonesbury FAQ. [back]
  5. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman, serialized in Analog in 1974, then published as a novel by St. Martin's, won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 1975. [back]
  6. Usually defined as 17,500 words or more. [back]
  7. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Universal Pictures, 1998, dir. Terry Gilliam, screenplay by Gilliam and others. [back]

Copyright © 2005, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at


Feb 28, 19:37 by Bluejack
Discussion of the real, the fantastic, or the Duke invited here.

(Jay Lake's article is here.)
Mar 8, 06:26 by Rosario Torres

interesting discussion. very often while reading, I find myself playing guesses about characters - is the author drawing from someone specific in his life, or doing a patchwork, or looking in the mirror? Or drawing from the collective unconscious?

where do writers find a balance? I´m reminded of some novels that have tried to deal with this question through the medium itself.

´Jack Maggs´, by Australian writer Peter Carey, is an interesting novel that teases Dickens (by way of his invented protagonist, Tobias Oates) about unabashedly picking out London personalities and using them in his fiction without permission. Tobias goes so far as using hypnosis on the subject of his fascination, a deported criminal returned from Australia called Jack Maggs. I recall a moment in the book where Maggs and Oates are traveling together in a train, and Oates begins to jot down notes about his subject excitedly. Maggs realizes he`s the subject, and fixes Oates with a scathing look that says everything: ¨Treat me like a human being, not as an ingredient in your next novel.¨

Besides telling a good story, ¨Jack Maggs¨ seems to probe the ethical limits of the writer in his pursuit of the character.

Another novel I was reading when I happened on your article - ¨Atonement¨, by Ian McEwan. The protagonist of the novel is Briony, a 12 year old girl who aspires to write romantic fantasy epics. She is so anxious to find parallels between her stories and the world around her, at a crucial moment she confuses the real with the imagined and, being the witness of a crime, accuses the innocent party of being guilty. (It´s hard to explain; the book is well worth reading) She spends the rest of her life atoning for an error in judgement. In later years, she succeeds as a fiction writer, but one who works fastidiously to transfer the details of reality into her fictional characters - her way of ¨crawling, on hands and knees, towards the truth.¨

in scifi, we´ve got a lot of lee way with our characters. It´s a safer environment, it seems, to stray from the real when it suits us and to make things up. Half the time they´re not even human :) But we still work interchangeably between the real world and the fantastic, in order to create characters which are believable to readers.

Sometimes, as jay says, the real is stranger than the imagined. politics sure seems to be going that way these days, doesn`t it?

Mar 16, 17:43 by Jay Lake
Politics, life, and people...all strange and stranger.

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