John Ostrander: Who Are You? And Who Are Your Characters?

Peter-Capaldi1

by John Ostrander

Let’s have our own little adventure in time and space. At the time I’m writing this, the new season of Doctor Who, starring the new guy, Peter Capaldi, has not yet played. By the time you read this, it will have already been on. A bit of the old timey-wimey thing.

If you’re not a viewer of the time traveling import from the BBC (and we Whovians pity your poor benighted souls), Doctor Who is a fifty-year old TV show featuring a madman in a blue box. The madman is also known as The Doctor and the blue box is his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey and while he looks human, some bits of him aren’t. Such as the ability to regenerate when his physical body is in close danger of dying. It’s not just a reboot; his entire body changes… and so does his personality. It is this ability to change actors every so often that has helped keep the show on the air for fifty years (give or take a hiatus or two).

That’s one of the exciting mysteries about the new season. We’ve only seen bits and pieces of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor but we already know he’ll be very different from his predecessor. Matt Smith was sort of the Robin Williams of Doctors; anything that came into his head came out his mouth. Capaldi is also older than the three prior Doctors, harking back to the first versions of the Doctor. He also appears to be more serious to the point of being grim. I’m very much looking forward to finding out who and what the new Doctor is.

The challenge for each actor playing the Doctor is to find a way to put their own stamp on the character while, at the same time, finding the core of the character, the part that doesn’t change. It’s a challenge not only for the actor but also the writers of the show and it illustrates an important aspect of writing characters in general.

We are, all of us, like a diamond. Turn the stone and the different facets can reveal different aspects. We have many different sides to us and they come out according to the situation or who we are with. You may be different with your friends than with your parents. Guys are one way with their guy friends but if you introduce a female to the mix, they change. The body posture, the voice, the way a guy expresses himself may be way different with a female (especially a new attractive unknown one) than his buddies. I don’t know but I suspect the same is true for women.

What we find to be true in life should be true in our writing. If you are creating a complex character, you have to find their contradictions. A person can be very brave in some aspects and yet very scared in others. They can go from one thing to the other in a heartbeat. Maybe you’ve noticed that some people are really nice until they get behind the wheel of a car where they can turn into flaming assholes. Maybe you’ve been that person. We have heroes within us; we also have villains. That’s why writing a villain can be a lot of fun; you get to let loose that side of you without any real ill effects.

One of the purposes of a supporting character in a story is to bring out this aspect or that aspect of the protagonist. Have you ever noticed how some people bring out the best of you and others bring out the worst? Back in my college days, there was one person I really didn’t like being around. I finally figured out why; he demonstrated aspects of myself that I didn’t like and seeing those traits made me uncomfortable. As a writer, however, that’s all useful.

The thing to remember is that all those aspects are you just as all the past incarnations of the Doctor are the Doctor. As in life, so in our writing. All our characters are an aspect of us. That’s part of the fun of it.

As for me, I can’t wait to see what the newest incarnation of the Doctor is like. Maybe by figuring out Who the Doctor is this time, I may also learn a bit more about Who I am.