Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Where do your characters come from?

A few weeks ago I wrote a few installments about creating characters who will pepper your prose with authenticity and flavor. I'd like to explore that again over the next few weeks. Characters have a lot in common, whether you're writing a series or a stand-alone book. There are also a few differences.

First of all, let's talk about the basics regardless of what you write.

Saundra Akers Crum, an author from the Columbus, Ohio area who did a book signing with me said she keeps a careful study about each character she creates. I had never got into such depth with my characters before, but I can see where this would be very helpful. I wrote the first installment of my Jenna's Creek Novels in 2001. I am currently working on Book 4. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm slow.) Anyway, I forgot a lot of stuff. Nothing major. I do remember names and who married whom. The things that give me the most grief is dates and ages.

The first book, STREAMS OF MERCY, takes place in 1973. It involves a 25-year-old disappearance. Naturally I go back and forth a lot between the present day (in this case, 1973, and 25 years earlier, which was 1947. See, I'm already confused. The characters surrounding the disappearance were in their early 20's. By the time the book took place they were in their mid to late 40's.

Book 4 of the series begins in January, 1978. Several characters from the first book who were directly or indirectly related to the disappearance are active in this book too. They are currently in their early 50's. They have children in college and some grandchildren.

See why I should have written all this down?

Saundra keeps a notebook about each character. Not only does she chronicle physical appearance (that's all that many writers and readers care about), she explores each characters motivations and habits. She starts off with birthdays. Boy, would that have made my life easier if I had taken the time to do it back in '01. She includes where they went to school, when they graduated, what they drive, first boy/girlfriend, bad habits, quirks, marriages, divorces...well, you get the picture.

I always thought this was unnecessary. I mean, who cares what a relatively minor character majored in college? You would be amazed at how these small details can come back to haunt you. Not only does knowing John's age when the Hindenburg crashed (even though that event is never mentioned in your book) make your work easier down the road, you can understand more of his personality and motivation if you know some of these details.

We all know women who won't even go to the mailbox without making sure her shoes match her bag. Not to mention what type of bag she carries, and if she bought it on sale. Then there's the friend you run into at the grocery store with baby spit-up on her shoulder who can never find her checkbook. These details mean something.

You don't need to go through this with every walk-on character in your book. But if there is the remotest possibility this character may make another appearance or he may be integral in the life of a major character, take the time to build a background.

Even if your book isn't part of a sequel, take the time to get to know your characters intimately, all the way down to those annoying little details you don't care about.

We'll get more into creating characters next time. Stay tuned.

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