Creating Characters – Fun, Fantasy and Memory

Michelle Obama

Courtesy of Joyce N. Boghosian, White House photographer

Last night, Michelle Obama spoke to the nation about her husband, the president.  Last week Ann Romney was given the same task.  In short, these women had to succinctly draw a picture, create an emotion, and reveal a reality of the special men in their lives, so that others around the country could see these men through their wives’ perspectives.  The line that did this for me was when Ms. Obama said “The presidency didn’t change him, it revealed him.”

Hmm… Reveal character.  Isn’t this exactly the task of a good author?  Reveal a character, layer at a time, until your reader is thoroughly engaged and believing there is always more. Sometimes the end result is that you may be asked to write another book, or two, or three that tell us more about your character.  Why?  Because, with your words, you’ve made us care.

So, what goes into building a character?

When I started writing Daisy’s first novel, Faith on the Rocks, I knew I wanted a main character that shared my silly side, yet wasn’t entirely “Liesa.” Years of watching Murder, She Wrote, Monk, and Psych or reading the novels of Susan Albert Wittig, Diane Mott Davidson, Janet Evanovich and M.C. Beaton, showed me that the amateur sleuth could be just about anybody, but it would be good to have him or her be “different.”

Then I drew from my personal experiences to ask, if I were the protagonist, who would I be?  It was a natural that Daisy would be an aspiring writer.  Okay, that’s a start. Now what?  People have often mistaken me for a teacher, so that along with the hours and hours I spent in teacher conferences and IEP (individual education program) meetings, hinted at a teacher role.

But, a teacher would have a hard time breaking away from class to go solve mysteries.  I mean, can you honestly buy into a story with a line like, “Class, you take this four-hour history exam while I slip out and go check on a murder suspect of mine?” Not going to happen.

So, Daisy could have been a home-school teacher/mom. Ugh! Not for me. And I can’t really see dragging the kids along into scenes with murderers.  Not responsible parenting at all.

Then it hit me.  Daisy could be a retired school teacher. That’s cool, but I wanted her spry enough to run–or at least waddle–after bad guys to her heart’s content. I think she’d retire at the earliest opportunity. In today’s economy, I suspect a lot of younger teachers are “retiring” early.

Okay, now we have a retired school teacher.  Terrific market for readers out there.  What, however, would make Daisy different, the only person who could have the natural police skills necessary to solve crimes?  Who has to observe closely and build stories based on facts not always communicated verbally?  A pre-school teacher would have those skills.  The kids don’t talk much, but they have a world of learning to do.  Special needs kids have the same situation.

Hey! Wait a minute. That’s it! Daisy could be a special needs teacher.  Cool!  I’d been involved in special needs classrooms for close to 15 years. I had some experience as a substitute teacher, Odyssey of the Mind coach, and religious education volunteer.  I could do this.  I could write a Daisy Arthur mystery, because I could build a Daisy Arthur character.

In her book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, Hallie Ephron goes through chart after chart and step after step of building a character:

  • What does your character look like?  Not so important as you may think, but any detail you use needs to be consistent.  Things like height, weight, and age are good basics, but go further.  Is there a scar–especially with a story behind it–your character is bothered by? Does he squint? Why? Is she beautiful? Please tell me it aint so!
  • What are your character’s qualities? What can most people observe about your character? What special hidden qualities exist?  Now we’re getting interesting.  What hang-ups does your character have?
  • What things frighten your character?  Let’s be sure to put those creepy-crawlies in your book some place. In writing, being sadistic is fun.
  • How does your character dress?  Silly question, but I don’t think I’d ever put Daisy in a Brooks Brothers suit, much though I love Brooks Brothers clothes.  She’s a school teacher, for goodness sake.

You get the idea.  Half the writing of your story isn’t so much how A, B then C happen, as much as it is making new friends.  If you know your character, really know her, then one day you can go up on stage and say, “And that is where this boy I met at a high school dance comes in. His name is Mitt Romney”. . .


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