07 October 2014

Stealing People

Christopher Isherwood wrote, in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." I don't live in the world Isherwood inhabited (I'm not living in 1930s Germany, to start with), but I like the analogy and readily apply it to myself; with a slight modification: I am a vacuum cleaner, on full speed, actively inhaling all that is around me, quietly storing it away for future use... And what I find of most particular value in the dust bag are the people.

A question I get asked from time to time is: Where do you get your ideas? The question no one has yet asked me is: Where do you get your characters? It's a better question. Stories are about people doing things. A plot can't exist without someone in it doing something to someone else. And even if it's a story about a lone man climbing a mountain, it's still about at least one person doing something. A plot without characters is called a landscape painting.

I've written a few plot-driven stories in the past, and not surprisingly, none of them have ever sold.

For me, plot ideas often start out as abstract thoughts or singular slivers -- snippets of information; like this one: A MAN breaks into the company safe to steal the money inside, but instead of cash, he finds a $5 box of chocolates.

A snippet can be quite simple, and often quite plain and ordinary. What can set it on fire is when, as in the above example, the MAN becomes a character; when he moves from being a "placeholder" and comes to life with a back story, motivation, and physical traits. For example, the MAN becomes Jason Andrews: a 44-year old accountant with a drinking problem, grooming issues, and a gambling addiction. He owes $5000 to a loan shark who's promised to put a bullet in his good knee if he doesn't repay the loan by Friday (deadlines always make characters leap to life). Jason is desperate. He already walks with a cane, as his other kneecap was busted from a "prior financial incident".

With the beginnings of a fleshed-out character, the plot snippet has come to life, and the story could go anywhere. BUT (and I can't underline that enough times) wherever the story does go, it's primarily because the character of the character has led it there.

So, where did Jason Andrews come from...?

I made him up. From component parts.

  • An old man used to regularly catch my bus on Thursday evenings. He had a cane and a particular way of walking.
  • A friend in high school accidentally got shot in the leg, and reminded everyone regularly about how much it hurt.
  • A work colleague at my first job was a Colonel Blimp type. He had an exaggerated opinion of himself and talked a lot of self-important rubbish. He was also often on the phone talking to his bookie. Every call ended with him slamming down the phone.   
  • I have known many men with alcohol "problems". 

Jason Andrews came from people I know (or have known, have known in passing, or have maybe just seen once).

Three characters
Many books on writing suggest compiling lists when "building" your characters, e.g. age, height, eye color, occupation, IRS number, DOB, food preferences, favorite TV program, lucky number, and so on. I've never liked this idea; lists are just random surface information. I make up my characters as I go along, fine tuning each to fit the plot, mixing and matching traits and characteristics, part "borrowed" from real people, and part out of pure invention. I'm a bit like Dr. Frankenstein -- a leg here, a motivation there, a brain from over there. In short, I steal people, and everyone I know is a potential surgery candidate for my character laboratory.

People are fascinating. Some have the depth of an ocean, some are no deeper than a puddle. Some are Rubik's Cubes, some are about as complex as a paperclip.

One question I got asked once was: Do you ever put yourself in your stories (à la Mary Sue)? No. I like writing about things that I'm not. In fact, I try not to let my personal opinions, values, or beliefs drive any of my characters. I don't like didactic writing.

The hero of the book I'm working on is a Catholic priest. I'm neither a priest nor a Catholic -- if you ever see me near a church (of any faith), it's probably because I'm admiring the architecture.

By the way, if you ever want to experience Burke's idea of the sublime (intense awe), stand right in front of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), stare upwards, and then remind yourself that construction of this enormous and impossibly tall cathedral was begun about 350 years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. In fact, so long ago, the first stone was laid in the same year the Aztecs kick-started their empire.

And also, by the way, thank you David Dean for your excellent recent piece: Adventures in Catholicism. It has been duly cut-and-pasted to my research folder.

So, where do you get your characters...?

Be seeing you...


  1. You are very, very welcome, Stephen. There's nothing like being of some use.

    I agree completely with your assessment on character development. Sometimes, I only discover after I've written a story that a character in it strongly resembles someone in my life. Other times, I consciously, and without shame, borrow people from my life to put to work in my fiction, often mixing and matching them for best results.

  2. Interesting, Stephen. Most of the writers I know, including myself, do sometimes write characters that are a combination of people they've seen or known.

    My Jane Baker is a combination of visually handicapped students I worked with when teaching, but she's most like the woman that my first blind student became after I taught her twenty-five years ago. She's independent and self-sufficient. Without intentionally planning to, a lot of the real woman's preferences showed up in the first book. Example: Jane's favorite beverage is Dr Pepper. The "real" Jane delighted in the fact that she thought I remembered that about her, though it wasn't intentional on my part.

    Callie just sprang into my mind full-blown, but I had no physical description of her in the first book until my agent wanted it included. I had the idea that readers would picture her however they liked. Having Callie dye her hair different colors frequently allowed me to vary her appearance.

    I don't, but I've known writers who post pictures and/or characteristic lists on the walls. Artistically talented Tamar Myers used to sketch her characters as they developed.

    My favorite character I've created is Tennessee Linda Pearson in KUDZU RIVER, which, by the way, has been changed from a late November release to January 6, 2015.

  3. My characters are composites, too: although I have to admit that Matt Stark is pretty much my deceased Aunt Katty. But I agree - plot without characters is dead, dead, dead (to me, at least). And an interesting character can come out of nowhere: like the guy who called his wife (twice) by another name in front of me... I'm working on fleshing that guy out right now.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    It occurred to me this morning how characters in movies I write are quite different -- something for a future article, maybe.

  5. Where do you get your characters? That is a great question, and you are right. No one asks it. I always remember Rex Stout saying that Nero Wolfe just sprang from nowhere. Hetried to create another hero, Tecumsah Fox, and Stout said, as I recall "Fox was built and he wasn't worth a damn."

    To ight I will actually be talking about my character Shanks. I started with a plot it took me ten yearsto resolve Nd that decade gave Shanks time to grow and mature...

  6. Like the others, I used composites. I've used family members, friends, and acquaintances here and there. For good guys, I look for traits like strength, kindness, generosity, honesty and reliability.

    One bad guy I based on that fellow we've all know, that stab-in-the-back office politics player. Comeuppance is good!


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