posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy
No, this isn’t a post about moral fortitude, increased spiritual awareness, or over-coming bad habits. I’m going to blog about something we fiction writers do all the time – build characters.
Story and characters are like the old chicken and egg conundrum. Hard to say which comes first, but can’t have one without the other. And just like story lines, there are probably as many ways to create fictional characters as there are writers of them.
I know some writers who do extensive character interviews. They have long lists of questions that ask everything from favorite color and mother’s maiden name, to first kiss, and they complete these for every main character before they ever write a word of story. Some use astrology or ennegrams or archetypes to zero in on characters’ personality traits (my heroine Rylie Powell is a Sagittarius, just like me). Still others “borrow” qualities from movies or real life.
Quite a few writers have told me that they find photographs of people online or in books or magazines that look the way they think their characters look. Or they find the place the characters live, the clothes they wear, the furniture and cars they own. A couple of different writers I know keep these pictures in elaborate story binders, or scrapbooks. I’ve heard of others who do collages.
Names are a topic big enough for a separate blog post, but they are also an integral part of character building. I’ve heard of every kind of methodology for naming from using the phone book (done it) to making the name reflect the personality (Uriah Heap, anyone?) to naming them after a real person (yes, I have named more than one villain after my ex). There are lots of places online where you can look up thousands of first names, find their meanings and ethnic origins. I wanted one of my heroes to be half-Croatian and needed a fairly common Croatian first name. I decided on Zvonimir, Von for short. You can even see which names were the most popular in any given decade for the past hundred years. Plus, there are genealogy sites for first and last names, and even census records. I think I may have mentioned that I used Irish census data broken down by county to come up with last names for many of my characters in The Wild Sight.
One thing that seems universal among writers is that our characters “talk” to us. Yes, we really do “hear” them inside our heads. Sometimes they talk to each other, and sometimes directly to us. Fortunately, since the advent of bluetooth, people no longer stare at me when I talk to myself in public. “Talking” and “listening” to my characters is my chief method of character building. Pictures can sometimes help as a spring-board, but mostly I have to get to know my characters by “talking” to them.
Usually they arrive with their name already in place, or at least with some very definite ideas. For example, I wanted one of my heroines to have a short, masculine sounding nickname which the hero would refuse to call her, and I chose Sam/Samantha. Before I started writing The Wild Sight, I told one of my critique partners that my next hero would be Irish and he’d be named Nathaniel. Okay, so I was half right.
That’s the thing about character building, being the writer does not make you the boss. Characters, at least mine, tend to have a “mind of their own” and the writer just gets to take dictation. Once they start “talking” I never know what they might reveal or if I’ll ever use it in the actual story line. That’s how I found out my hero of Jewels of the Madonna lost his virginity at age fifteen to his sister’s college roommate! And how I learned that my heroine Rylie’s parents first met lighting candles in a Catholic church a few days before Christmas. Neither of these interesting tidbits ever made it into the books, but they gave me valuable insights into my characters.
For you writers out there, please share some of your character building techniques. For readers and writers, what are some traits that make a character seem "real" to you?