Wright’s Writing Corner: The Logic of Character Revisited

Mephisto Prospero

“Don’t you recognize me?”


I love this subject. So, I thought I would discuss it again.

The logic of character is the thing that makes it so that characters come alive, the thing that makes it so that quality A and quality B overlap to make Character C who not only seems vivid and 3-Dimensional but also begins to act on his own.

What do I mean by “act on his own”? Surely, characters do not write themselves without writers!


Well, no, they do not appear on the page without a writer to type, but they do dictate their own actions as the writer writes, so that the process of writing is almost like taking dictation. The character has so much integrity—qua character—that his reactions or next actions are obvious without the author having to decide what they will be.

Not all characters come alive. Two dimensional characters never come alive. The writer has to put them on the page through painstaking care, imitating what happens when characters are alive and hoping that the lack of depth will not be obvious to the reader.

This type of organic character generation is visible more to the writer than the reader. I think readers pick up on it when a character really comes together, but I have seen it faked…where the character never really came alive for the writer, but at least some readers read in to him whatever is missing.

It is much more obvious in roleplaying where, once a character comes alive, it tends to differ dramatically from the person portraying it…to the point that the character generator (moderator or player) can be as surprised as anyone else at what they say. Some characters even make the jump from one moderator to another and stay alive and vibrant.

(Actors probably could tell us even more about this process, but there are none here at the moment.)

What is interesting is that, while I have spoken in the past about how contrasting characteristics help characters spring into 3-D, it is body gestures that really seem to bring them alive to me. The characters I really get a grip on, I tend to have a particular way to stand, or hold my head, or some other thing that goes along with the character. Often I do not even notice it unless I think about it.

And it is not just me. There is a character that I particularly like. I like him in the book he comes from. I like him when John stuck him in a roleplaying game. I like him when I portray him in games. I like him when other people portray him. Recently, I noticed that I had picked him out a couple of times the moment he came onstage, even when he was being portrayed by a less skillful moderator and was using a code name. It was his body language and tone of voice that I recognized…and the character was vibrant enough that these qualities made the jump from the original book to those acting the part.

That strikes me as a bit odd. How can it be?

How can such a thing be? How does this character have such integrity across mediums that I can recognize him at a glance, even when the person portraying him is not a particularly good actor?

Years ago, John and I were in an accident. While John was recovering at the hospital, my girlfriend got him a brightly-colored, stuffed parrot from the hospital store. We picked it because it was colored a bit like a phoenix. John named it Ixion, after a phoenix we liked.

Ixion took on a life of his own. He talked with a kind of Bronx-like bird accent (a bit like Iago the parrot from Disney, though Iago came many years later) and often talked about “Flying!” his favorite activity (usually accompanied by someone throwing him across the room.) We jokingly called him our son and used to take him everywhere, even making him wear a seat belt in the car. (To this day, we tell the kids that Ixion is their elder brother. Orville bit a bit of his nose off when he was little, but other than that, he’s still “flying!”)

The funny thing about Ixion was: not only did he maintain his personality between John and me, but nearly everyone who visited also got in on the act. Guests and friends would do the funny bird voice and make comments as Ixion. Even my mom got in on the act. The uniformity of character between speakers always amused me.
What is most amazing to me is that this phenomena exists at all. We did not have to live in a universe where, if you correctly “caught” a character, it came to life and seemed to make its own decisions. In fact, the very idea is rather bizarre..

Personally, it makes me wonder about us human beings and how our personalities are put together.

I know people who are mentally ill who adopt strange ideas or behaviors, and I cannot help but wonder if they have been taken in by the logic of character. A person playing a character in a game can get really caught up in a good 3-D character. Is this what has happened to some of these folks, only they are not quite with it and think this alternate character is them? It certainly seems that way. If they understood the phenomena—that it was something writers, roleplayers, and actors can put on and take off—would they be less taken in?

If so, what does it say about the personality we think of as “us”? Is that a character, too? If so, what would happen to us if we stopped assuming it?

Inquiring minds want to know.

The real issue, though, is that: logic of character is fun. It is delightful to watch a character come to life, in your hands or in another’s, and bring clarity and charm to the page where he presides. It makes the process of writing as much fun for the author as the process of reading is for the reader. It makes it worth the effort to keep rewriting until you find the approach that does make your characters spring to life.

Okay, that was not really about how to write, so much as a commentary on the process of writing. Sorry about that. Still… a fun topic.

One semi-related comment before I close. Two people have now claimed that Mephisto in the Prospero Daughter’s series was based on them. This amuses me because I wrote Mephisto exactly the way John portrayed him in the roleplaying game where I first encountered him. I did not change him one wit. (I did alter some of the Prosperos a bit, fitting them better into my story. The original Theo was not an old man, for instance. But not Mephisto.) I did not have to. He was so 3-Dimensional that he sprang to life without any effort on my part, so much so, apparently, that some people out there think he is them.

Not sure what to make of that.