Thursday, March 15, 2012

Creating Characters

I'm ready to begin a new book. I've had the ideas and plot in my mind for some time, but I still need characters. Since I write a series taking place in a small town, many former characters will return, but I need some new ones, too. Soon I'll start making up biographies for those new ones. How big a part the character plays determines how long the biography will be. The murderer always needs a long biography. I need to know what drives that person to commit murder. I don't write thrillers with psychopaths. My murderer is generally a normal even nice person, but something drives him or her to murder. It might be the victim stands in the way of something they desire, or they feel threatened by the victim in some way. Of course, there's only one murderer per book, but I do need to bring in new characters to populate my town of Portage Falls. I've already killed off seven plus eliminated the murderers. After all, I can't decimate my small town like Cabot Cove in the series Murder She Wrote.

I've based a few characters on people I know although never the murderer. A character I love, Ed, is based on my brother, Jerry. Ed looks like my brother and is the avid gardener and intelligent well-read person he was. But they diverge in other areas, especially in their wives. My sister-in-law is a delightful person nothing like Ed's wife.

Catherine, my protagonist, shares the same name as my youngest sister, and she's a botanist and blond. Other than that their only similarity is being smart, curious and nice.

Millie is a cook at Elmwood Gardens, the large public gardens important in my series. She's based on my mother-in-law, now deceased. Millie is extremely nosy and often asks inappropriate questions. She loves gossip and because of this she often unknowingly gives Catherine and the reader clues or red herrings.

Other characters are mostly created from my imagination with sometimes a quirk or a certain look of someone I know, or maybe from a conversation I've overheard in a restaurant or someplace between two strangers. Also, the human interest stories in the newspaper or magazines are a good source for characters. So are obituaries. I'm still thinking of how I can use the obituary of a woman with the only thing said about her was "She loved to clean." In Twinsburg, Ohio, there is a yearly gathering of twins. One of the awards given is for the oldest pair of twins. Interesting. So in my third book, I have elderly twins, a brother and sister (Ira and Ida), who live together and are constantly bickering.

Names are easy. I pluck them from the newspaper, books, magazines and people I know - a first name here, a last name there.

Creating characters is fun. It's one of my favorite aspects of writing. Maybe it's because I'm curious about people. I want to know more about them. What's their story? What makes them who they are? Of course, there are people I meet I don't care to know better. That doesn't mean I can't use what attributes I don't like about them in creating a character. A book needs well rounded characters, those who are a mixture of positive and negative elements with those we like best usually leaning more towards positive. But unlike the old time westerns, no one today wears a white hat signifying they're a good guy of a black hat signifying they're the evil doer. And neither should our characters.

If you are a writer, how do you create your characters? If you're not a writer, what kind of characters would you like to create?


E. B. Davis said...

I'm thinking about my next WIP and in doing so have to identfy what characters are needed. Once I do that, filling in with their characterization will come, but the puzzle for me is determining each character's function.

This next book will be character driven and I'm developing new character arcs for each of my main characters as I've left them in the first book. What must they learn, what obstacles will I give them, and who will help them--my new antagonists.

After I figure that out, then I can flesh them out on the page. But determining how they will function and fulfill my objectives--that's my biggest challenge.

I think you're in the next stage along in the process, Gloria.

Polly Iyer said...

I always start with the characters, never the plot. The character develops the plot because of who he or she is.

A man who spent 15 years in prison--what's his greatest fear? Being locked up again. How could that happen? Plot.

A blind psychologist--what puts her at an even greater disadvantage? Being stalked by some "unseen" person with no reason. Plot.

A call girl trying to get out of the life--what could prevent that from happening? The cops want her to go back into the life to find out who's killing prostitutes or they'll put her in jail for not paying taxes on her illegal earnings. Plot.

Characters drive the stories. Once you have them in your head and figure out what would cause them the most damage, you have your plot. Simple. Yeah, right!

Warren Bull said...

I never know what's going to trigger my next story idea. A character, a plot twist, even a detail. I am grateful for cell phones. People say the most amazing things as if nobody can hear them.

Norma Huss said...

I started the sequel to my first book quite some time ago. Struggled. That didn't work out. Went on to the first book of a new series. Published. Started a sequel to second book. Then I saw a news article about a seven-year old girl who took amazing pictures for one so young.

Aha! That first book has an older woman as the amateur sleuth. She doesn't particularly like children. Perfect! I'm starting the sequel to that first book all over - and the catalyst was that new character, a quaint, self-sufficient child, home-schooled by a mother who started as flighty but has changed to just the opposite. Oh, and I think I've found my victim. They've had disagreements by page three. On to page four!

I quite agree - finding those perfect characters is everything. (And, of course, my child of the book has only one thing in common with the child in the newspaper - taking random photos.)

Patg said...

My characters are always based on someone I know. Then I fit them into the story--with some drastic changes, of course. :)

Gloria Alden said...

I think what you're doing E.B.,is important. I had a character, Ralph Derryberry, in book two who was a lazy dufus, but I thought he was interesting enough to make him do something rather outrageous in book three. I had pretty much fleshed him out in book two, so it was easy to have him do what he did in the next book.

Gloria Alden said...

I agree with you, Polly. There was a human interest story several years ago about a guy pushing his friend in a wheelchair into a bank to cash his check. The friend was actually dead. There weren't a lot of details so I developed three characters and built a plot around it. The story hasn't been accepted yet - no murder involved - but I still like it because of the two living characters in the story.

Gloria Alden said...

I hear you, Warren. But then I'm amazed at the weird and stupid things that come out of my mouth
sometimes, too.

The totally inappropriate thing that came out of my mother-in-law's mouth was when she came to the house right after my son had died in my arms, and one of the first things she asked was "How many breaths did he take?" I don't remember what I answered, but I think I ignored her question.

Gloria Alden said...

Norma, I have a delightful child in my third book who is based on a student I once had except for my student didn't have to deal with parents getting a divorce. My critique partners have fallen in love with TJ, my ficitional child.

I'm glad you were able to find a character to jump start your writing.

Gloria Alden said...

Okay,Pat, who was Prudence based on? I always assumed she was you. Most of my characters are not created from an actual person, but a conglomerate of people I've met or people I've read about or just people I've imagined.

Sophia said...

I really enjoyed your post! It's fun to read about how other authors come up with ideas for characters. Mine tend to be composites from many sources--usually characters on tv, I think. The main character always has a fair dose of me in them (of course they all do, but with the mc it's conscious). But I never base a character entirely on one person. It's like you described, they'll have several of someone's traits, but then they'll differ.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Great post, Gloria, and great comments, too. I start with characters, and if I don't, it doesn't work out, and I have to go back to the characters to learn how to make it work.

EB, I'm at the same stage with my third novel. Of course, it's going slowly because I'm doing so much promotional work for EVERY LAST SECRET. That all needs to be done or in place before the launch.

I think that may be one thing self-published authors have over those of us with traditional publishers. The self-pubbed work just as hard promoting their books, but they can spread it out over time. With a traditional publisher, that initial week after publication is so important that you're going crazy for the weeks leading up to the launch and then right after it.

Patg said...

So true, Gloria, a lot, but not all of Prudence is me. And the rest of the staff is based on a couple of hundred people I worked with at airlines and agencies.

Gloria Alden said...

Sophia, thanks for stopping by. My protagonist and the next most imp. character, both have a lot of me in them, not that I look like either one of them or am as smart and brave as they are. :-)

Gloria Alden said...

Linda, you're right about the self-publishing vs traditional publishing. It's one of the reasons I've given up on trying to get a traditional publisher and decided to go Indie. I don't want the pressure. I know I'll never be more than a mid-list writer, but going the route I've chosen also means I don't ever have to worry about having my book dropped if I'm not selling enough books. It will always be out there even years and years from now.

Gloria Alden said...

I thought so, Pat. A lot of Catherine is me - not looks, etc. but the things I love and value and how I would think and act if I were in her situation. Well, maybe not always. I'm way past ever wanted to start my own business and never did want to have a garden shop or do landscaping for others. I can't keep up with my own weeds.