Characters — Where do they come from?

 “How do you come up with the characters in your novels? Are they based on real people? Do you make lists of their work, family, education, hobbies? Is it better to describe them in detail, or let readers flesh them out in their minds?”

These are questions novelists hear from readers eager to understand the mysterious workings of a writer’s mind. I’ve heard all kinds of advice about how fiction-writers “should” create fully dimensional characters, but I think every writer finds her own ways.

I confess that I have based several characters on people I know (or knew), and have found “seeds” in characters in films or even music videos. It’s a boost to start with appearance, speech, or personality tics you’ve already observed, then go on to morph that seed into your own character. Most of the time, my models never recognize themselves in the transformed character, which is the way it should go.

Take Heinck, the creepy ringleader of a criminal gang in my second science fiction novel, Win, Lose, Draw. (I hate that title my publisher chose instead of my original Resistance Coil, but that’s another story!) He’s whippy, with slicked-back dark hair and a lot of “pain-dure” tattoos that advertise how tough he is, a sadomasochist who has absolutely no morals. The man I took as my initial model probably never reads, so I don’t have to worry that he’ll recognize himself – besides, Heinck is probably smarter.

Years ago, when I was working as a scuba guide and instructor in the Bay Islands of Honduras at an isolated inn reachable only by boat or rough trails, I was pretty much held hostage by the lowlife temporary manager who was driving away the few tourists and making life miserable for everyone else. He waved around an arsenal of guns, bragged about his previous scams, and kept me and the other employees from taking a boat to the only distant town to radio the absent owner back in the States about the state of crisis at his inn. When the owner finally arrived to fire the manager, he skulked away to the relief of everyone. (spoiler alert) And later, I took secret pleasure in killing him off as my fictional villain. One perk of acting Deity in our own invented worlds!

Flipping the coin, I created a modest tribute to my original writing mentor by making him a minor, helpful character in my Caribbean suspense novel Islands. My mentor was R.D. Brown, a source of inspiration to his many students at Western Washington University. He was a very tall man, with a slouch perhaps as the result of ducking through doorways, a bald head, a jowly face, and an incisive wit animating his eyes. When I created Captain Wilkes, a native police chief who aids my archeologist/sleuth Susan Dunne, I called on images of R.D.: A big native man was unfolding his height from a dusty compact. He slouched over to me in rumpled slacks and a linen dress shirt, dark scalp gleaming above a graying frizz, face drooping in folds like an intelligent basset hound.

Islands

You’ll see that I’m in favor of providing appearance details of my characters. I feel that leaving them a blank slate makes it hard for readers to invest or even keep track of who’s who.  BTW, Captain Wilkes is a rare character-based-on-real where I’ve been caught out: When his partner read the novel, she immediately recognized R.D. as the model, and we all got a chuckle out of it.

Of course, there’s a lot of work to do once the original image and basic personality forms. Voice is perhaps the biggest challenge for me: What kind of diction would this person use, and does it fit his background and upbringing? Or deliberately contrast with it, for plausible reasons of education or choice? Is each character meant to be sympathetic or not? Even if she’s “the bad gal,” does she embody at least a little ambiguity as a complex person? When I teach fiction-writing at the university, I point my students toward good advice from writing guru Janet Burroway: “Give your character a consistent inconsistency.” In other words, some habit or preference that seems at odds with the initial presentation or “type,” so he has a realistic individuality.

I do depart from some writerly advice (including Burroway’s) to create a detailed summary about every character, including history, family, hobbies, etc. I feel that it constrains the characters if everything about them is pinned down at the start, and prevents them from “acting out” to inform me that they would do this or wouldn’t do that. But I do have to work during revision to make sure they “add up” to realistic personalities.

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Because my novels are often set in foreign countries where I’ve lived or travelled, I face a special challenge in creating characters from different cultures, working to present them as authentic, with believable voices that might mirror their different diction or accents from English/American speech. I usually present these characters through the observations of an American point-of-view character, hoping to avoid “cultural appropriation” or just plain blunders in accuracy.  The more you experience and observe people in actual life, the closer you’ll come to capturing the essence of characters, whether from familiar cultures or foreign. In my travels, I’ve found that there are definitely cultural variations in beliefs and social interactions, but also that most humans at heart have much in common and are willing to make a connection.

One more example from my latest novel set in Greece, The Ariadne Connection, to be released in October 2014 from Book View Café. My heroine’s uncle Demetrios has retired to a mountain village on the southern coast of Crete. In real life, I was backpacking in this region with my former partner, when we found ourselves stranded in a remote, rocky village without a place to stay during the Easter holidays when all the busses stopped running.  We were trying to find a level, unrocky spot (not likely!) to pitch our tent, when we were befriended by a local dignitary, Stelios Mamalakis, who offered us the famous Greek hospitality of a place to stay and a tour of the local landscape. Here is a bit I borrowed from him for my character Demetrios:

Wild asparagus. Ariadne touched the slender soft buds Uncle Demetrios had always favored. She could still see him, all those years ago, climbing ahead of her up a narrow ravine beside a rain-swollen stream, pushing through thorn thickets to find the new asparagus shoots, tearing his trousers to get the last one.

“But I can’t resist it! This one is the best, Kri-Kri, just look at it. Tender youthful perfection, the most sublime Platonic ideal of a sprout. Now this is beauty. We will eat it tonight and be strong and beautiful, too.” His white teeth flashed beneath the long pirate mustache.

 I will leave you with this thought: We writers have to love our characters, even the villains. With love, and patience, they will live and breathe.

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Sara Stamey’s romantic suspense novel Islands is described by reviewers as “an intellectual thriller” and “a superior suspense novel….a stomping vivid ride.” A new eBook edition is available from Book View Café. BVC will also release her new metaphysical thriller set in Greece, The Ariadne Connection, in October 2014.

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Characters — Where do they come from? — 4 Comments

  1. You can even create a character by getting a plot idea and going, “Now, who would do X, Y, and Z?”

    Additional wrinkles can be added by asking who would find these acts deeply significant.

    • CS Forester said he thought most authors thought of a character first, and then figured out something for them to do. But he thought of things to do first, and then tried to think of the most interesting characters to do them. Thus we ended up with the African Queen.

  2. When I teach fiction-writing at the university, I point my students toward good advice from writing guru Janet Burroway: “Give your character a consistent inconsistency.” In other words, some habit or preference that seems at odds with the initial presentation or “type,” so he has a realistic individuality.

    I love this. I think I’ve been doing this all along, but I hadn’t put a name to it.

    • Characters — especially the protagonists, the ‘good guys’ — should have a flaw. The hero is a wonderful man, rescuing kittens and dropping pennies into beggars’ cups. But he is unable to be on time, or finds it impossible to do any housework, or cannot live within his income. You could slide this up and down in severity. If he’s a wonderful man but insists on believing that women and colored people are slightly less human, then it clearly is getting more serious.
      And, similarly, the villain should not be of an unrelieved blackness. He’s the despoiler of nations but he really does love his dog. He sacks cities but writes a wonderful sonnet. (Adolf Hitler was a quite good watercolor painter.)