My Creative Process: Characters

Who wouldn’t like to create a memorable character? Several come to mind: Scarlett O’Hara, Hannibal Lecter, Nero Wolfe, Jo March, Hercule Poirot, Rebecca. Some of these literary characters were interpreted in films and TV.

But think of Rebecca! Though Daphne DuMaurier’s novel was filmed for theaters and TV, and made into a play, the titular character is never seen. The reader knows her only from comments of others, and yet we’ve a fairly good idea of her persona. Rebecca is beautiful, scheming, unfaithful, and powerful, even in and after death.

My characters are now living in my head. Anne Ashton, poet-mystery solver is the protagonist. Since I’ve written about her before, I’m fairly keen on what she will and will not do. It’s other main characters I want to address.

Which comes first—the name or the image of the character? For me, the image comes first. I see my characters—the pretty, plump, older woman, the next-door neighbor who smokes a pipe, the Irish folksinger, the Druid priestess. I know how they look. Keeping elements of the plot in mind, I create personalities that will hopefully move my story along. Physical appearance and characteristics help me find names.

A pretty, plump older woman character takes shape. Her role is to convey information, which sometimes is untrue. This woman is excited about the world. I give her sparkling blue eyes, a kewpie doll mouth, gray curls. (I can see the curls bobbing as she talks.) She is kind; she is the essence of sweetness—but not entirely—she is a gossip; her careless words hurt people, and not everyone likes her. She is the local priest’s housekeeper. He swears she is the soul of discretion.

What is her name? I try several names. Betty. Maggie. Claire. Confession: I’m into sound. That’s probably because I’m a poet, as well as a prose writer. None of the aforementioned names sound right. Judy has a sweet sound, Though I’ve known no Judy like my character, I christen her Judy. The name settles on her like a lovely print housedress. It was meant to be.

One by one, I flesh out other major characters. The Druid priestess is an intellectual, who runs a sheep farm. She calls them her sheepies. She is tall and thin with darting eyes and a small beaked nose. She wears colorful, dramatic clothing. She is distinct, as each character must be.

When I’m done creating a character, I take time to record his/her characteristics and qualities in a notebook: birthdate; eye and hair color; build; uniqueness; trait vital to move the plot forward. I give the characters names, making sure none are confusing. I won’t name one Tim and another, Tom. I write the character descriptions in a notebook that I can refer to as I’m writing the story. If, on page 25, the character is described as a blond with blue eyes, I may not remember the eye color on page 253.

Caution: Characters come alive as the story progresses. Don’t give them a trait or place them in circumstances that would make it impossible for them to carry out their roles in the story. Though they may strain at the leash, they are YOUR creations! Next post: naming characters.

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