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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My Creative Process: The Creative Mood

Is anything original? From Ecclesiastes 1:9: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Perhaps the writer was speaking of human nature.

In The Origins of Creativity, Edward O. Wilson describes creativity as the driving force in humanity’s instinctive quest for originality…We judge creativity by the magnitude of the emotional response it evokes. (This is why we need beta readers to tell us what we’ve written.)

The dailiness of my life is not particularly stimulating. Even worse, when I’m compelled to use my left brain zealously for an extended period of time, as in gathering tax information for my accountant, I’m not creative at all. If I’m flush with creativity and have to shift to left-brain activity, I’m resentful and rush through whatever it is that interrupted me, and usually make mistakes.

Unlike John Lennon, who had songs running through his head, I must prime my creativity. I’m happiest when I’m in the grip of creative thought.

Fresh experiences open my mind. I tend to stay at home with my dogs. Recently on a shopping trip with family members, I stood on an escalator and marveled at the colors of an upscale shopping center. Ceiling displays jarred—they seemed to have sharp edges, the metal reflecting light. People in dark winter clothes swirled through the passageways. My senses caught bright lights, murmurs, aromas from the food court. I captured the essence of the experience in dissonant music, which only I heard. I could write a poem about the mall. I could place a fictional desperate escape in a shopping center. I saw atmosphere, the propensity for confusion.

Of course, reading stimulates me. I own most of the books I read, so feel free to write in them. I ponder over a well-constructed plot. I thrill over a clever metaphor. I learn new words. Did you know slides were heelless shoes? I watch films and documentaries with a notepad and pen. Who knows when a kernel of a poem or scene will pop up? I go to lectures, take notes. Social situations activate my mind. I’m a good listener. Hearing what others have to say piques my imagination.

Sometimes, I hit a brick wall with a scene. I need excitement, the element of surprise. My brain can’t come up with anything fresh. When this happens, I retire to a comfortable chair with a clipboard, tablet, and pen, and do free writing. I start with a word pertaining to the situation I’m writing about or the name of the character involved, and words flow from my pen. After fifteen minutes of this, I read what I’ve written. Most of the time, I find something to use to burst through the brick wall.

There are times when I must walk away from a scene, dust the bookshelves, play with my dogs. My mind needs rest. Next day, when I sit down at the computer, the right words come. Next blog—I’ll return to plot and character.

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My Creative Process: Plot and Characters

Theme for my next novel: Jealousy. I prime my mind with what others have written: Jealousy is the jaundice of the soul (John Dryden) and To jealousy, nothing is more frightful than laughter (Francoise Sagan). From the Bible: …for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God…(Bible). A biblical footnote states that jealousy is part of the vocabulary of love. I note the significance of the word, vocabulary.

I cast my mind to a locale for the novel—some place that will inspire me, allow me to set a mood. Water stimulates my imagination. There is magic in water sounds—a gurgling brook, the swoosh of the current, fish leaping, waterfowl quacking and honking. On sunny days, river water mirrors quivery reflections of forests. The motion of rivers makes me think of where the water has been and where it is going. Who bathed their feet in the water yesterday or two hundred years ago or a thousand years ago? What kinds of trees and plants grow along the banks? Depth, with its murkiness, invigorates my mind. What lies on the river bottom? A gun? A body? A rowboat sunk with bullet holes in the helm? The river atmosphere—fog, mists, vapor—creates mystery.

In “The Dry Salvages,” TS Eliot found inspiration in the river:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong, brown god—sullen, untamed, intractable.

I will read TS Eliot before and during the writing of my novel. He gets rivers.

Characters. I already have one—the protagonist, Anne Ashton. Anne is a university professor and poet, whom I’ve written about before. Her usual environment is a midwestern college campus. The last time I wrote about her, she was in Ireland on a fellowship grant. This time, she’s back home and leaving for a poetry retreat. The new story is a mystery, but it is also Anne’s story. As protagonist, she must learn something over the course of the novel.

What are her vulnerabilities? In another story, I gave Anne a Calvinist background, which left her with a tendency to be judgmental. She’s hard on others and she’s hard on herself. She makes efforts to correct these tendencies. Due to an episode in an otherwise pleasant childhood, she finds it difficult to trust people. This trait is helpful in sleuthing, but not in personal relationships. Anne has a sexy, magnetic partner, Luc Broussard, who has given her reasons in the past to be jealous. Anne’s weaknesses will be woven into the plot, as well as her strengths.

Several plots come to mind over the next few days. I write them all down, and as I do, a jealous female character emerges. I find the plot that best fits itself to my jealous female, who by now, in my imaginings, has acquired a husband, child, sisters-in-law, an old auntie, and friends. Two credible subplots grow—one stemming from her child and another, from an older member of her family.

At this point, with the exception of Anne Ashton, my characters are shadowed and still like the figures in Georges Seurat’s painting, “Study for a Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” I need to flesh them out. But first, I want to discuss getting in the creative mood. Stay tuned.

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Book Review: The Ghost of Jamie McVay

Teenager Brian Krueger faces challenges: a move to a new neighborhood and school, a apyromaniac neighbor and his gang, an alcoholic father who spends his time swigging beer in front of the TV, and little money to meet basic living needs, including school expenses. Two strong influences in his life are his hard-working, understanding mom and Sharon, the girl next door. Brian is a sensitive kid, who comes from a long line of men with psychic powers. He sees the ghost of railway conductor Jamie McVey and hears the train that crashed years ago in a nearby marsh. On one level, this is a compelling mystery, but it is also a story of human triumph. R. G. Ziemer skillfully captures the moods of a teen-aged boy as he grapples with complex issues, including forgiveness and self-awareness.

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My Creative Process: Theme

Before outlining a novel, my thoughts are like a windstorm. I write poetry and draw, so thoughts are likely to come in snippets of phrases and images that I capture in notebooks scattered around the house. I never trust my memory. Interruptions chase good thoughts away—the doorbell, a clanking washer, my pups, a phone call…

I sorted through my thoughts to identify a central theme. For my latest manuscript, I isolated revenge and forgiveness. Two themes, then. I didn’t think you could have revenge without forgiveness or unforgiveness.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote an essay entitled “On Revenge,” stating, in part: Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out… Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.

It was in Bacon’s quote, that I found my guiding star for “Old Sins.” An act of revenge is a kind of wild justice. A character wrongs another character. Order is disturbed. The act of revenge is an attempt to restore order. An eye for an eye.

To feel the texture of revenge, I read what others, in addition to Bacon, had to say. Prior to Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy, casting Revenge as a character, which stood onstage for most of the play, serving with the ghost of Don Andrea as a Greek chorus. Shakespeare gave us his tortured Hamlet, who spurred by the ghost of his father, killed his uncle to avenge his father’s murder. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, sought revenge against Antonio for many slights and degradations.

Myths. Juno imaginatively punished several lovely maidens who caught the wandering eye of her husband, Zeus. The ancient Celts told countless tales of revenge. King Lug’s wife strayed with Cermait, so Lug killed him. Then Cermait’s sons, in an effort to slay Lug, drove him into a marsh where he drowned.

The greatest enactor of vengeance was the Old Testament Yahweh: Vengeance is mine, thus sayeth he! Forgiveness came in the New Testament with the death of Christ.

In Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, Michael E. McCullough wrote: Truth #1: The Desire for Revenge is a Built-In Feature of Human Nature. He went on to explain that as humans, we are hard-wired to experience vengeful feelings, and not so hard-wired to forgive.

My novel “Old Sins” began with a study of the theme. Next, I started to create a framework for the plot. Characters flowed into my mind. Look for my next post: My Creative Process: Plot and Character.

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