Where do characters come from?

I’ve been talking about The Drawing Lesson, but I’m now thinking back to my very first novel, Conduct in Question, the first in The Osgoode Trilogy, where I worked hard to produce my very first evil character.

Have you ever been haunted by a character, one who inhabits your imagination for days, months or years? Acquiring a life of his own, he leaps from the page and burrows inside us.

Think of Dickens’ Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge or Shakespeare’s King Lear or Macbeth? And then, of course, more recently, Hannibal Lector who bursts from the mind of the novelist Thomas Harris and frightens us from the screen in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.

Where did these characters come from? And what makes them so vivid that we carry them in our psyches for years? It’s not enough to say that they arise from the imagination of their creators.

Maybe there is a clue in the thoughts of one of my favorite authors, Robertson Davies. [Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy]

“Unless the writing rises from the only true fountain of inspiration—and the Unconscious has shown itself to be not timely, but timeless—it will not be first rate.”

As writers, we may plot the life and actions of a character to our heart’s content. We may apply intellectual reason to the creation and birth of a character, but it will be to no avail. Because, when it comes right down to it, the only thing that matters is where that character comes from, within the writer. If we try to create him by rational thought alone, he is almost certain to fall flat and be easily forgotten.

So what’s so special about the unconscious mind? That’s where creative psychic energy resides. According to Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, the artist [writer] has unusual access to the realms of the subconscious and all the creative energy it contains. Although we are usually unaware of it, our unconscious dream life continues even when we are going about our daily business. Those fantasies float up unbidden to the surface of the conscious mind of creative writers or artists. When he or she is doing some mundane task like shopping, one of those haunting characters may be born right in the aisle between the cereal and the detergent.

Does that writer rush home and write down everything that has emerged from the unconscious and then present it to the world as art? Hardly. That’s only the beginning. She may go deeper into the realms of the collective unconscious – a sort of vast and completely disorganized library, which contains all the images, thoughts and energies of all mankind from all ages. Plenty of material there to shape characters who live on in us! They stay with us because they are ‘made’ of ancient material we all share as human beings.

I’ve sometimes been asked—How could you possibly create such a character as The Florist in Conduct in Question? Such a question is usually accompanied by an uneasy sidelong glance. Perhaps I’m still trying to justify myself.

In Conduct in Question, the first in the Osgoode Trilogy, we meet the Florist, a sadistic murderer with an artistic flair, who believes he is called to judge the worthiness of his victims. When I was out for a walk on a beautiful spring day, I asked myself, what sort of person do I fear most? After many twists and turns in my journey, I realized it was  someone who took extreme pleasure in doing physical or mental harm to another. A joyful sadist if you like. But how to make him grow beyond a cardboard devil, who might be easily dismissed or laughed at?

To create a real devil, I think you must give him real human characteristics. Then we cannot deny he is a part of us. The Florist senses a lack of compassion within himself. Longing for it, he addresses his mother. I know what the word compassion means. But what does it feel like? Miraculously, even the Florist has a fleeting moment of redemption, when he does experience compassion. Loving art, The Florist labors to create the lyrical lines of the painter Matisse, as he carves human flesh. He takes his task of judging the worthiness of his victims with utmost seriousness. Sound like a mad enough a devil for you? But with these human touches, he cannot be so easily dismissed.

Back to Robertson Davies, who writes, “But I know that there is one thing he [the Devil] is: he is a personal element in everybody’s nature, and he may be defined as everything that a man or woman condemns, detests, and is certain that he or she is not.”

Is that the answer? The Devil is in all of us to one degree or another. Most of us succeed in keeping him under wraps in the unconscious depths. But we cannot deny he is there.  Have a look at Conduct in Question and see the results of one writer’s attempt to capture him from down below and put him on the page.



About Mary E. Martin

Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After earning an Honors Degree in History at the University of Toronto, she graduated with her law degree from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. In 1973, she was called to the Bar of Ontario and began the general practice of law in Toronto, with emphasis on real estate, wills and estates and elder-care law. This law practice of more than 30 years was a great inspiration for The Osgoode Trilogy ("Conduct in Question," "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One.") Her fourth novel, “The Drawing Lesson,” will be the first in the next trilogy, provisionally entitled “The Trilogy of Rmembrance.” She is also a photographer particularly with respect to her travels. She has had two commercial photography shows. Married in 1973, she and her husband live in Toronto. They have three adult children.
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