Where'd You Get Those Characters?

August 6, 2016

 

       I began to hear the most frequently-asked question right away: “Are your characters based on anyone you know?” Friends who received advance copies The Lark, my first published novel, were curious.  They asked, “Where’d the characters come from?” Some who waited for the release asked if they would recognize themselves in the book. Overall, the most FAQ has been “Where did you get the idea for Charley?”

       Here’s how Charley, the main character in The Lark evolved. I knew a bunch of interesting ladies who work at the beauty salon I visit for haircuts and the occasional chair massage or manicure. I had written a couple of stories about women working in a salon. Someone observed, “Sounds like Steel Magnolias,” when I told her about my stories. Oh. Not too happy about my lack of originality, I decided to start a story with a young female hair stylist who marries an older man who is a drummer in a band. About thirty pages in, I began to bore myself. I was thinking, “How can I punch this up?”

       I remembered a presentation by a local author at our writers’ club, in which he said, “If things feel too conventional, turn them upside down.” So Charlene became Charley, and the drummer, Lou, became an older lady. And then I decided to take off in a different direction from the plot I had in mind. The basic settings stayed the same—the nightclub (invented), the hair salon (adapted from my real one but different), and Sulfur Gap (a composite of small West Texas towns I know).

Once Charley appeared, he took on a life of his own. I knew him. Thomas Hardy said, “Character is destiny.” That’s true of real people as well as the characters writers create. Once I knew Charley, I knew what needed to happen within my world-view, which isn’t fantasy, sci-fi, or horror.

But characters don’t magically appear. When I’m formulating a story (a novel, a segment, or a short story), I start sketching.  I write the character’s name in the center of a page, and then I jot down everything I know about that person and where he or she is headed in the arc of the plot. Sometimes I realize that the plot will need adjustments to fit the character, since a plot works best if it’s character-driven. Sometimes I change the character’s name.

       I focus on the character’s conflicts—what the person brings into the storyline—both the baggage and the laurels. Has he or she missed out on life because of an over-developed sense of self-sacrifice? Does the character harbor a guilty secret? Is the character trying to overcome a handicap, such as being a total nerd? Has the character been hurt deeply by someone or by a stroke of fate? Who or what does the character love most? From this comes focus on motivation, which then drives the plot.

Alongside this diagram, I begin to jot notes about how the character’s segment of life that I am portraying will play out within the setting and the basic plot line.

       Another helpful approach is to write a character sketch—like the old high school English assignments--Write a character sketch of Lennie in Of Mice and Men. If characters don’t come into focus, I write a description of them—discover who they are. What I describe about that character is what I will show as the plot thickens. It’s a great tool to solidify a character in my thoughts.

So this is part of the very long answer to the question, “Where’d those characters come from?”

The short answer is “My head.”

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