Where Do Characters Come From?

Man Booker Prize-winner, Life of Pi
Martel never bases his characters on real people—they're always a vehicle for something he wants to express.
  • Transcript


Question: Where do your characters come from?

Yann Martel:  I don’t dwell on character, honestly, they’re vehicles.  I think of... it’s funny, I’m stumped when I ask that, because, you know, I think more of plot, setting, theme, and from all those, somehow the characters arise.  So my characters are never based on real characters, for example, they are always a vehicle for something that I have, which I hate saying because now it makes it sound like they’re flimsy, and that’s not my, that’s not what I want.  But I don’t, first and foremost, think of character when I write.

Question: How do you start to write? 

Yann Martel:  It’s an idea... which sounds so terribly cerebral.  So it’s not a cold idea, it’s a hot idea.  It’s an idea that’s suffused with emotion, or maybe it’s emotion that has a thought in it at its heart.  So it’s more an idea, so "Life of Pi" was this idea of life being an interpretation, life being a series of facts on top of which you can interpret, and that’s the case, obviously, with our lives.  We interpret life.  Life is an interpretation.  So it was that idea of telling a story with one set of facts, but two stories that can interpret those facts, two radically different.  And in a sense the same thing with "Beatrice and Virgil," there’s a fact called the Holocaust and I’m trying to tell it with one kind of story, an unusual story, not the usual representations we get.

Question: Why pick animals as characters? 

Yann Martel:  I wanted to speak of the Holocaust, but in an alternate fashion and I decided to use animals, I decided to approach the Holocaust in animal disguise.  So I needed animals, I wanted two animals, because they had to have dialogue, I needed orality, I needed a play.  And I needed to find two animals that might represent the Jews.  So trading on positive stereotypes, donkeys are held to be stubborn, they’ve endured, in a sense. Jews are historically have been stubborn in a sense, they’ve held onto their culture, to their religion, despite centuries of discrimination.  At the same time, we hold monkeys to be clever, to be nimble.  Well, historically, Jews have proven themselves to be exceptionally nimble and clever, they’ve adapted to all different kinds of circumstances, all kinds of different countries, cultures, and also historically, they’ve contributed enormously, disproportionately to the arts and sciences.
So trading on those positive stereotypes, I chose, well, here, how can I represent Jews?  Well, here, I’ll represent them as this combination, these two animals, monkeys and donkeys.  It could also be that the donkey is sort of a representation of the body and monkey the representation of the mind of Jews.

Question: Do you think you're pigeonholed as a writer who uses animals?

Yann Martel:  Well, yeah, people who don’t like my stuff will say that it’s a shtick, that it’s a gimmick.  People who love it will just say it’s unique and it’s original.  But, you know, if people, it’s very easy to put anything in a box.  So to say that all my books are the same because they feature animals, would be like saying, you know, like three novels set in India are the same.  Well, just as India, it can be a source of an infinite number of stories.  Stories with animals can be infinitely different.

So for example, a very obvious example, "Life of Pi" and "Beatrice and Virgil," despite sharing animal characters are entirely different novels, completely different novels.  You know, perhaps the, you know, maybe you would say, well, the writing style is the same, perhaps, but really, the theme, the tone, the, even the use of the animals, in the "Life of Pi," the animals are not anthropomorphized, in "Beatrice and Virgil," they are anthropomorphized.

Recorded April 13, 2010