When you write a novel about a white supremacist virgin misogynist, people will deliberately avoid asking you a question they'd ask anyone else who'd written a novel:
But if they'd ask me, I'd tell them: I am every character.
All the people in my book live inside me. I carry a piece of them with me, everywhere. When I finish my novel, I'll be sad to see them go. I wish all of them well. I empathize with them. I can see how they'd react to certain events, how they'd move through a certain space, the thoughts they would think. When I about bad things happening to them, it makes me sad. When I write about happy things happening to them, it makes me happy.
The truth is, I feel more empathy for my characters than I do for many people I meet in actual life. I feel this empathy because I have to - because to write a character is to know them. To know them, first and foremost, is to feel their pain.
But that's not really what this question is about, is it?
What people really want to know is who you based each character on.
I have drawn from both my experiences and the experiences of other people to draft all of my characters. They are chimeras, synthetic fusions of memories and friends and people I have loved, spread outwards from a single shard penetrating the ground, like a tree growing roots in all directions.
The tricky thing about writing is you can't judge your characters. If you write a novel about a bad person, you have to present their faults in a nonjudgmental way. To judge them is to break your ability to empathize with them.
Bad people suffer too. Everyone bleeds.
Here's Steve McQueen on Epps, the slave-master and main antagonist from 12 Years a Slave:
To McQueen, debasement is a necessary condition for sympathy, which he finds much more interesting. For instance, he feels sympathy toward the plantation owner Edwin Epps, played diabolically by Fassbender, whose attention Patsey has the misfortune of attracting. This confused me.
What binds every human being together is the ability to suffer. This is the thread that links all of us, even the psychopaths who we think are beyond redemption.
There is another answer to this question, though, of where characters come from. My friend recently commented that writing was akin to magic - the ability to construct full people out of thin air, to create these miniature minds housed inside your own. To an extent, she's right. Here's Cory Doctorow on his "simulator" theory of writing, which reads dangerously close to the "just-so" stories endemic in evolutionary psychology, but is nonetheless a compelling idea and worth reviewing:
I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.
I don't believe in the literary concept of distance. Fuck distance.
Particularly if you're writing a story from the first person, distance is your enemy, not your friend.
The time to step back is when you're analyzing and rewriting your own work, but not when you're in the trance of actually composing it. No matter what the advice books say, you must not break this trance. The trance is your friend, the means through which you construct your own simulators, until they break free and run around in your head, whispering ideas for new scenes at two in the morning, when you can't sleep because you're still thinking about your novel.
Bleed - bleed with all of your characters, and you'll write something that can move another human being.
If that's not the purpose of art, then I don't know what is.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis