Sunday, July 5, 2009

Character Building

posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy

Some of the questions I'm most often asked by readers and aspiring writers are about my characters. Specifically, how do you come up with them and are they based on real people? So without further adieu:

HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH YOUR CHARACTERS?

I don’t come up with my characters so much as they come up to me!

My characters tend to arrive in my imagination fully intact, complete with their first, middle, and last names. Though I will admit, I changed my hero of The Treasures of Venice, Keirnan Fitzgerald’s middle name. My First Reader, whom I've known for over 30 years, told me she’d always been very fond of the name Sean. So in deference to her, I changed his name from Keirnan Padriag Fitzgerald to Keirnan Sean Fitzgerald. Luckily he didn’t mind.

When my characters arrive, they tend to tell me all kinds of things about themselves. Quite handy, though I know it sounds bizarre to people who don't write. We writers are very possessive about their characters. We spend a lot of time with them (some of it very intimate!) and they become very real to us. In essence, they are all ‘our babies.’ Most writers know many, many more things about their characters than ever appears on the pages of the book.

ARE YOUR CHARACTERS BASED ON REAL PEOPLE?

Well… yes and no. Since these are my babies, there’s a little bit of me in all my characters! Sometimes there’s a little bit of people I know, or have met, or read about…

So far, the character I’ve written who is the most like me, is the hero’s bossy older sister in The Wild Sight. When my own sister read the book for the first time, she said she cracked up because it was so obvious to her that Doreen was based on me.

I also named three secondary characters in The Wild Sight after my son and two of my nieces. They all got a laugh out of it. And a secondary character in The Treasures of Venice is named and modeled after a good friend of mine who happens to have a cool Italian name. She was very flattered, but we'll see what she says after she reads the entire book.

Also be careful what you wish for! I do write romantic suspense after all.

My niece’s husband wanted me to name a character after him, so I did, in my current work-in-progress, The Wild Irish Sea. Unfortunately, his namesake character meets a rather nasty end in the first four pages of the story! SHHHH! He doesn’t know yet!

And YES! I do have “models” for the main characters. When my characters arrive in my imagination, I usually have a pretty good ‘picture’ of what they look like. I usually go on an internet search for find pictures of celebrities to match those pictures in my head. A tough job, but somebody's gotta do it. All in the name of ‘visual inspiration’ of course!

I don’t always widely broadcast who provides my visual inspiration, because I know that as a reader, I like to have my own ‘picture’ of the characters when I read. That was one of my biggest fears when I went to see The Lord of the Rings movies. I loved those characters so much and I was just sure the actors cast in the roles were not going to live up to the images I’d carried in my head all these years. I must admit that except for a preponderance of pointy ears (Tolkien never described any of his characters as having pointed or otherwise unusual ears!), I was very pleased with almost every major cast member. Okay, I was especially pleased with Aragorn.

Now it's your turn! If you are a writer, how do you come up with your characters? Are they based on real people? And if you are a reader, do you like to know who served as the authors 'visual inspiration' for a character? Or do your prefer to find your own models? For everyone, have you ever had a favorite book turned into a movie and the actors were totally right or totally wrong?

20 comments:

  1. I use all of those things along with a healthy dose of my own imagination, especially when I'm creating aliens. You don't meet many of them on the street.
    I agree that LOTR was very well cast, but while Faramir wasn't exactly the way I'd pictured him, it gave me a new actor to keep tabs on!

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  2. My heroines are always a little bit me (only taller, thinner, younger), but more the way I'd rather be (braver, smarter, sexier). My heros are not chest thumping alpha-males. They are ordinary guys, put in extraordinary situations. Sometimes they are quite nerdy and not always good with the ladies, but need to find their A game to get the girl.

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  3. With mine, I try to pattern the heroes after alpha wolves...and they are in charge, so it's a given. But it's their pasts, their flaws that make them unique. With my heroines, they have to be every bit alpha to make a match. What was interesting though, was I was watching a program on the study of a wolf pack, and the alpha male actually chose a real loner female in a pack, rather than her sister, who had always been a real team player. :)

    As to actors who don't fit a part...the new Sherlock Holmes movie coming out next year. Dr Watson looks perfect. The guy they play as Sherlock doesn't do the character justice. Basil Rathbone is it. :) This other guy is too short and too American. There. I said it. LOL!!!

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  4. I've had friends ask to be characters - they'll learn to specify next time. LOL. But I always let them know that they aren't based on them as people - the characters are their own personalities, just with borrowed names on occassion. But many times, the character is who she/he is and their name is their name, whether it's after anyone I know or not.

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  5. Oh yeah! I was "especially pleased" with Aragorn myself! My love affair with Viggo Mortensen lasted a looonnnggg time. But that is another subject.

    I know for a fact that readers do not understand just how intimate and possessive we writers are about our characters. I never did when I was just a reader. Now that I know how strongly I feel about the characters I create, I will NEVER criticize a writer for doing something that I do not quite understand. Because now I know that they know this person heart and soul, and that no matter how excellent a writer they are, they will probably not get that love across to their readers thoroughly.

    For me it is a mix. Some characters arrive in my head fully realized, others creep up on me. Some I know all their details in the beginning, others evolve over time as they become more real to me. Some have traces of folks I know while others are complete fabrications.

    I do very frequently name after people I know. I love doing that! It is my way of saying thanks to a dear friend or paying homage. But like Judi said, the name is just the name. The character will have nothing to do with that person.

    Great post Cindy! We never tire of chatting about the characters that we love. Like you said, they are our babies and who ever tires of talking about their baby?

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  6. Morning Everyone!

    LOL Cheryl on not meeting many aliens on the street! Maybe you should come visit California. I swear some of the people I see running around at the mall and public events LOOK like they are from another planet...

    And yes, David Wenham (aka Faramir) was YUMMY! He did a fantastic as the dastardly villain in "Australia" last year!

    AC

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  7. Hi Kelly!

    I hear ya on the thinner and younger. HA! Also I like to think my characters act like I would in a given situation. Okay, like I would WANT to act... I'd actually probably hyperventilate or faint in many instances. :-)

    AC

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  8. Terry, interesting about the alpha male chosing a 'loner' female. There's a story for you there, I'm sure! ;-)

    I completely agree about the character's past (or backstory) making them unique. I always know waaay more about my h/h's backstories than I ever reveal.

    Haven't seen anything about the new Sherlock Holmes movie but Basil Rathbone will ALWAYS be that character! And they've cast an American?!?! WHAT were they thinking???

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  9. Sometimes characters "just appear" sometimes I consciously design them to fit a specific role. Usually my H/H are the former, but not always.

    Either way, as Sharon says, they're real to me, and I come to love them--even when they behave badly. I always hope I can convey to the reader the compassion, the genuine caring I feel for them.

    Sometimes I feel bad because I feel like I have exposed their secrets, but perhaps have not written well enough to make the reader feel the compassion I do.

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  10. I agree Judi,
    All my characters have their own personalities even if I name them, or base them on someone. The character named after my friend may be a petite brunette, like her namesake, but the resemblance ends there. :-)

    AC

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  11. Ah YES! Sharon, please do enlighten us about your Viggo obsession. ;-)

    I do think some readers "get it" about our characters, but not all of them do. Other writers do, and that's part of the joy of connecting with other writers! It's sooo nice to know we are not the only ones who feel this possessive about our "babies."

    AC

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  12. MM,
    I don't think you need to worry about conveying your characters. You do a marvelous job!

    But I know what you mean about feeling guilty. I sometimes feel bad that I need to reveal painful and embarrassing things about their past. But I gotta do it to get the story told! It's a tough job...

    AC

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  13. But I LOVE Robert Downey Jr! He can do anything and pull it off. I think he will redefine Sherlock Holmes just as Daniel Craig did with James Bond. I, for one, can't wait to see it!

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  14. Cindy, my character building is real similar to yours. The heroine in my current work of creative mayhem haunted me for three weeks. I finally listened to her and began to write notes and the first chapter for her story.

    I love hearing about the processes of the published.

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  15. Oh, is Robert Downey Jr. playing Holmes? Well, if anyone can pull it off, HE can! Afraid I'm a bit out of touch with the latest movie and TV news. Been exiled in the writing cave lo these many weeks. :-P

    AC

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  16. Renee,
    I love those stubborn characters who will NOT leave us writers alone! Those seem to have the most interesting stories to tell. :-)

    AC

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  17. Yes, he is, and it opens Christmas Day, three days before my birthday. I'll actually have a movie I want to see this year! The trailer for it is a hoot!

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  18. I didn't base my character, the Marquess of Darkefell, after anyone, but belatedly found an actor who fit his looks perfectly... Rufus Sewell. (Jasper Bloom in the Holiday,

    He's perfect!

    But... I rarely disclose any similarity of my characters to actors, as I want the reader to decide for themselves who they would cast in the role.

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  19. Ooo, yes, Donna! I love that guy!

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  20. My characters appear to me over the course of the novel. I start with a few basic things I know about them and go from there.

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