Where Do Characters Come From?

Question: Where do your characters come from?

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

Question: How do you\r\n start to write? 

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

Question:\r\n Why pick animals as characters? 

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

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

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

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

Recorded April 13, 2010

Martel never bases his characters on real people—they're always a vehicle for something he wants to express.

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