Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let Your Characters Tell You Who They Are

First, two quick stories:
1.) I’m not very athletic, and have never played basketball with a straight face, so when the need for a technical basketball term came up in my mystery novel, I was a little worried about accuracy. The term I’d used for a certain position--was it correct? Or did it make my main character sound ignorant? I fretted about this all one day and into the night. Finally, as I was about to drift off to sleep, I remembered a comforting thought: "There’s always Vern. Vern Thomas played basketball in high school and would know if what I wrote was wrong. He wouldn’t let me get away with using an inaccurate term. Good ol’ Vern."
The next morning, I awoke to a jarring fact: Vern was a character in my book and only did what I told him; the ultimate yes-man.
2.) Recently, while I was manning my husband’s booth at an international waterworks convention, a short, handsome man with a strong French-Canadian accent introduced himself as a member of the organizing board and pleasantly asked for our suggestions to improve the convention next year.
I couldn’t think of a thing. My mind was too busy whirling. I tried not to gawk. There he was, in the flesh, right down to the heavy diamond pinky ring and the suave manner: Steve Trechere, the Millionaire from Montreal, a pivotal character in my mystery, IRREGARDLESS OF MURDER! I had countless questions to ask the man, but how do you tell a person, “We’ve never met before, but you’re in my book.” I mercifully allowed him to disappear into the crowd.
It’s my opinion that a writer does his best work when he becomes so involved with his characters that, on some level, he relates to them emotionally. They seem real. It matters to him what happens to these people and it matters to him what they do.
In the climax of IRREGARDLESS OF MURDER, Amelia Prentice faces death at the hands of a selfish and ruthless villain, and experiences what any of us might in this situation: shock, disbelief, fear, bitterness, helpless rage. It is a very angry scene. In the first draft, I was strongly tempted to have her use profane language to express her feelings, but the scene just didn’t feel right that way.
I went back over what I knew about my protagonist: she was a proper, ladylike teacher with a large capacity for compassion and a strong sense of justice, stemming from her belief in God. Would Amelia, at the moment of her death, be likely to use irreverent language just before she was to meet her Lord? Most assuredly not. How, then, would she handle the situation? Since the story was in first person, I had Amelia explain it herself:
"No! You rotten--” Vile, hateful, blasphemous names for[the villain]
bubbled up from my throat. I swallowed them. I was determined that those
would not be my last words on earth.
Now it worked. I had been true to Amelia. I could almost see her nodding approval as she read over my shoulder.
Many writers like to devise intricate back-stories about their main characters. They have file cards filled with personal minutiae, height, weight, hair and eye color, hobbies, etc. I tried that, but it didn’t work for me.
When I meet a person in the flesh, I don’t immediately know everything about him, and it’s the same with my characters. Only through conversation and contact did I gradually learn that someone like Lily Burns (one of my favorite secondary characters) is vain about her looks, but fiercely loyal to her friends. During the writing of IRREGARDLESS, Lily came to vibrant life, full of wisecracks and gossip. In fact, she was such a vivid person, she threatened to upstage Amelia and drag the plot down an unnecessary rabbit hole. This was when I was forced to exercise my writer’s super-power and pull the sassy blonde back into line. I shortened her times on the page and strictly limited her input to plot-enhancing scenes. This would have probably infuriated Lily, but hey, who was writing this thing, anyway?
In my second novel, ANOTHER THINK COMING, it was necessary to build an entirely new population of characters, in a totally different section of the country from IRREGARDLESS (which is set in northern New York State). I wanted to base the plot on the true story of a flamboyant drug dealer who managed to prosper in a sleepy central Texas county for a surprisingly long time, even going so far as to taunt the authorities in local newspaper want ads. We had lived there for eleven years, so I knew a good deal about the situation.
The real Ranger Bandit, as he called himself, was a pretty rough character. I couldn’t identify with him. I needed another, more sympathetic character to tell the story. A family member of one of his victims, perhaps? One with good reason to hate the Bandit. Someone with enough time on his/her hands to plan retribution. A woman, I thought. Obviously, I could identify more easily with a woman.
How about a God-fearing Texas woman who turns her back on all she believes and decides to kill/assassinate/execute the drug dealer who was responsible for the death of--whom?--her husband? her child? her grandchild? What kind of person would she be?
Gradually, Esther MacBride moved out of the mists of my mind and into full view. She would be in her seventies, a widow (a living husband might talk her out of her crusade of revenge) and deeply devoted to her grandchild. The dead child would be a boy, I decided.
Esther would be moderately well educated, enough to be articulate and to use mostly proper grammar, peppered with colorful local expressions. She would not be a native Texan, but would have moved there when she married. That gave her enough perspective to make observations on the uniqueness of Texas and Texans.
The grandson would be a teenager, I decided, with access to drugs. Perhaps he worked for the Bandit? (Or the Desperado, as I re-named him.)
I began the story in medias res (Latin for “in the middle of the action”), when the family receives the news of the death of Nipper (the grandson) and then I just let Esther tell her story. Her personality quirks emerged as the story moved along:
Esther’s a good housekeeper and makes dynamite coleslaw.
She’d been devoted to her now-deceased husband, Jon, and often recalls his wise sayings.
There is an emotional block between her and her daughter-in-law, Paige, a style-conscious, brittle woman who was raised by rather cold-blooded parents.
These and many more details came out naturally, and thanks to the wonder of computer word-processing, I was able to go back in the story and plug in extra background facts where they were needed.
By the time I finished ANOTHER THINK COMING, I still didn’t know the color of Esther’s eyes, but I did know the important stuff:
The woman has unknown depths of courage, makes a wonderful coleslaw and keeps her promises.
She has learned that planning a murder is more difficult than she imagined and that God is not mocked.
If it’s important for the story for the reader to know the color of her eyes, I’ll reveal that fact. Otherwise, I’ll leave it to your imagination.
But if I ever spotted Esther in the grocery store, I’d recognize her like a shot. I’d walk right up and ask for her recipe for slaw.


  1. Great article, Ellen! And I agree with you 100%. Readers will fill in the details about our characters - if we let them. I don't like to tell them everything about a character's physical appearance - but I do want to reveal their strengths and weaknesses. And I certainly want to reveal their hearts. This is how authors can create characters that become real to their readers. Something that you do masterfully, I might add!

  2. Wonderful post, Ellen--and very pretty blog too! Love it!

  3. This is great, Ellen! Thanks for sharing it. I'm bookmarking your blog and will come back often.:-)

  4. Hey Ellen - will 2012 never get here? I might have to ask you to let me proofread "Regardless of Murder" for you, or something like that. It sounds great.

    Like you, I had a funny experience with my protagonist. I was watching TV and there he was in a Ford commercial. I ran it back and watched him over and over. Dee (hubby) finally came in the room and asked what was up. I said "That's Witt!" After much research on the computer, I found out who the man was. And checked him out. Watched him on other shows, and in other commercials. But, oddly enough, he wasn't Witt in any other situation. It was his mannerisms in that one commercial that made him Witt. So, even in real life - he wasn't real. Can you believe I almost cried?