24 February 2013

I Was Just Wondering

by Louis Willis

I’ve been wondering about character creation. Not so much how you fictionists, or is it fictioneers (I’m not sure of the difference but that is a subject for another post), create characters, but I was just wondering how you manage to stay sane while doing so. Specifically, how you give each character a personality that distinguishes him or her from other characters, even minor ones.
Actors take what the playwright or screen writer has written and make the character their own, becoming the character. You fictionists, on the other hand, have to create several characters in one story, sometimes in paragraph or even one sentence. I was just wondering if you become each character in order to create him or her, to give them personalities, including the various emotions each must have to be believable. 

I began thinking about how fictionists create characters while reading A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly in which she, a white writer, created the black male amateur detective Benjamin January. I decided to write a post about creating characters after reading the short story “Pansy Place” by Dan Warthman (AHMM January-February 2012) that Rob mentions in his January 16 post. The protagonist, Jones, is white and Akin, the young man who goes along with him to confront the bad guys, is black. He reminds Jones of himself when he was young--a tough, no nonsense kind of guy. In addition, Warthman created a believable damsel in distress, L’Vonte, Jones’s cleaning lady, and Konnie Kondrasin who was Jones’s agent when he was taking on dangerous jobs. In all, including the three bad guys and L’Vonte’s boyfriend, there are eight characters he has to give different personalities with different emotions, though he gives the bad guys a collective personality.

In these two examples, the characters are of different races. Even when you create characters of the same race but different gender, you may have to be a woman and a man in the same story, and that has to do something to your mind. In the delightful story “Acting on A Tip” (EQMM July 2012), which Rob also mentions, the female author, Barbara Arno Modrack, creates Marty, a very believable male protagonist. He is an ex-alcoholic, ex-journalist who has moved with his long suffering wife Jenny and their youngest son to a small town where he helps catch a serial killer. Modrack has to first think like a man (assuming men and women think differently), switch bodies and be his wife, switch again, and be the teenage son, and finally switch and be the killer. She doesn’t give us the interior thinking of each character. We see the action from Marty’s perspective, but certainly, Modrack had to give each character a little personality to make them, even the minor characters, convincing.

In creating characters, you base some on relatives, some on friends, and even some on strangers, but mostly they come from your imagination. No matter, you still must give them different personalities with the accompanying emotions, and creating those various emotions, my friends, must take a toll on your minds, doesn’t it?

I was just wondering how you do it and still maintain your sanity.
To all of you a big


  1. I have been meaning to read the Hambly book, thanks for the reminder. glad you liked the stories.

  2. I like getting into the head of characters and have been pleased at the response of readers. It's not a 'feminine side' with me as some suggest, but more becoming a character for a little while.

  3. For me, it's a matter neither of "building" nor "becoming" my characters, including my two male series protagonists, a recovering alcoholic in present-day New York and a young marrano sailor with Columbus. The voice comes from that creative well of inspiration some call the muse and others the unconscious, and the character starts talking in my head. I simply write down what he or she says and delete anything he or she wouldn't say. One of the reviewer comments I'm most proud of was when Steve Steinbock referred to me in EQMM as a "female writer who has mastered the male voice." As the classic line from the movie Shakespeare in Love puts it: It's a mystery!

  4. Louis, I've known writers who need a visual of the character before he/she writes. Being artistically talented, Tamar Myers sketches each character during development. The characters in my series are so well known to me and my readers that Callie and Jane receive Christmas cards and birthday cards from readers. When I write them,they often take off and do their own things regardless of what I had in mind. I recently named a character after one of the SS writers, but he soon took on his own personality and began a romantic relationship that was totally unplanned. When writing stand-alones with new characters, I generally need to let them float around in my mind for several days to become real enough to me for their representation to seem right in the writing.

  5. Louis, In partial answer to your question, I've been trying to remember if anyone has ever accused me of being "sane." Hold on, I'm still thinking.
    Anyway, due to undercover work in my past I've learned to compartmentalize some of my brain, therefore writing different characters and their emotions and actions may come a little easier for me.
    Many times, in the grey wolf hours of early morning when my mind is not yet fully awake, it will dream up an interesting conflict situation which requires a certain type of character. This then also requires certain other characters as antagonists (or protagonists depending upon the situation). At that point, I usually reach back into the past, mostly for criminals and street people I've run across and how they would act/react to that scene. Sometimes these story characters are a composite of several real people, but even so they get bent to fit the story as it emerges from the scene and moves toward a climax. I suspect Chester Himes did something similar with criminals and composites of people he knew from his life on the streets when he wrote his novels about Harlem detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones back in the 60's.

  6. I once wrote a story, (under a pseudonym, of course) in the first person from the viewpoint of a lesbian. When asked by the editor to provide a bio I declined. I told her that I was a heterosexual male, grandfather, living in Northern California and had no idea how a lesbian thinks. But it must have been believable.

    I agree with Leigh. Become the character, no matter how much you may know about his/her wants and needs. There are certain universalities that allow you to do this.

  7. I hope you all don’t mind if I copy your comments into my “Theory of Storytelling” folder, the contents of which I occasionally review to improve my reading enjoyment and theories. Sometimes I wonder as I read what went through the author’s mind as s/he created a particularly interesting character.

  8. As a colleague mentioned once, James Patterson seems to get Alex Cross right, so much that some people were surprised to learn he wasn't a man of color. But Patterson has a lot more trouble with women characters. They seem forced and contrived.

  9. Louis, I (for one) would enjoy seeing more ideas from your "Theory of Storytelling" folder. This discussion has been enlightening, to say the least!

  10. WTF, Lewis? I mean, what's this sanity thing? I don't think I've heard of it before? Is it kind of like a car? (I ask that because you said a person needs to “maintain” it...like maintaining a car -- right?)

    All kidding aside, my approach probably best reflects Elizabeth's statement: "...the character starts talking in my head. I simply write down what he or she says..." coupled with Fran’s statement: "...I generally need to let them float around in my mind for several days to become real enough to me for their representation to seem right in the writing."

    This is sometimes tempered by an idea RT expressed, that “ … [some characters] get bent to fit the story as it emerges from the scene and moves toward a climax.”
    In my writing, though, character dialog and behavior often feels contrived when I'm led to bend characters too far, in an attempt to make the plot-work tick like clockwork. So, I try my best to concentrate on the characters (Elizabeth/Fran-style) and let the plot grow organically through their actions and interactions.

    This often results in a plot that morphs from what I originally imagined, into something a bit different. Admittedly, I lose certain minor plot elements because of this, but I always gain others (usually better ones, I believe) in return. If things seem to begin running too far off-track, however, I start considering how I might naturally introduce an additional complication – earlier in the work – that would “organically” bend a certain character into a frame of mind that would cause him/her to take actions which would swing the plot line back, closer to my originally envisioned target zone.

    I'd also point out that I think it must be very nice to arrive at a place, similar to the one Fran is in (and Dean Koontz with Odd Thomas, I believe), where a writer so KNOWS his/her characters that s/he can fully trust them to take the story line where it needs to grow.

    And, no, Lewis: I’m NOT crazy. In fact, if you could see your way to writing a letter, expressing this view, addressed to Dr. Fischer at the Arizona State Hospital, Psychiatric Wing, 2500 E. Van Buren, Phoenix, AZ 85008, I would be greatly in your debt.


  11. LOL

    This crew is mad as can be!


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