Monday, October 13, 2014

Knowing Your Characters

A new story or novel usually begins for me when I see characters moving around, engaged in a specific activity. Once I know these visual images will be part of the story, I begin looking more closely at the protagonist.

Developing a character in fiction often seems to be an exercise in choosing hair and eye color, height, and physical build. The man, of course, is always handsome and strong and drop-dead attractive in most novels. And the woman is equally gorgeous, at least to him. These are the details we learn first. But I want to know much more about my characters before I begin writing, alert to the fact that I will discover more as I work.

I keep a set of questions to answer as I begin working with a new protagonist or important character. These questions are equally important for the main characters in subsequent Mellingham books. I may not use all this information in the story, but if I begin writing without knowing the answers to these questions, the character will come across as flat and undeveloped. This is the process I went through to develop Chief of Police Joe Silva, who appears first in Murder in Mellingham

Here is the basic list I work with. You may have other questions important to you and your stories or settings.

Where did she go to school, or college?
How did she pay for it?
Did she graduate?
What is her economic or social class background?
Does she own a set of formal attire? How does she look in formal clothes?
Does she have a distinctive walk or mannerism?
Is she left-handed?
Where is she in the birth order in her family?
Were her parents young or old when she was born?
Are her parents still alive, still married?
Does she maintain close relations with her family?
Is she athletic? What are her pastimes?
Is she a regular voter? Is she politically savvy?
Does she have pets? 
Does she know her neighbors?
Does she have a lot of friends, or a few very good ones?
What kind of car does she drive?
How old was she when she learned to drive?
Does she need to be able to drive for where she lives?
What is her first reaction to someone threatening her?

The last question may seem to be the whole point of a story, for example, but is in fact how the story grows. In some parts of the country a man or woman is expected to respond to a phsical threat with enough force to make the other person back down. But in other parts of the country, the first choice of reaction is humor, to defuse the situation among other things.
The question of education is equally important. A working class man or woman who went to college in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps as the first in the family to do so, would appear on campus for the first day of class well dressed, perhaps in a blazer or formal sweater. A young man or woman who attended prep school would dress differently.

Someone who is very conscious of social class and maintaining status would choose a car carefully. Someone who grew up with money and didn't care about it could be just as happy driving a junker, but he would have the car serviced regularly by a very good mechanic. In Love Takes a Detour, the people of West Woodbury village are dependent on their cars. The rural area has no public transportation, and the outlying farms are too far away from town for walking. Keeping a car on the road means women as well as men are ready to do quick repairs.

Chief Joe Silva is typical of the man who grew up in a working class family, broke the tradition of generations and went to college. He paid his way through by working part time, and, typical of that era, left school with no student loans. He remains close to his large extended Portuguese family, and takes people as they are. As the chief of police in Mellingham, he encounters men and women of all classes, and he judges them only on their behavior. He doesn't like ostentation, and he admires those who are good parents. The sixth book in the Mellingham series, Last Call for Justice, focuses on Joe's family and background.

Just as our close relatives can surprise us with a quirk or personal taste they never revealed before, so too our characters can startle us as we write. This is the best part of discovery, when the character comes alive and leaves the author's control, and I always look forward to those moments of going deeper into a character I thought I knew.


  1. Okay, steal alert! I'm stealing those questions. They're terrific. I know most of my characters, but sometimes when a new one comes on board, it takes me some time to figure out who he or she is. I'll be this helps!

    1. I'm glad the questions are good enough to steal. Thanks for commenting, Terry.

  2. Susan, I've seen lists like this, some two or three pages long! I tried using them for one book and hardly used the information I painstakingly entered, so I never used them again. I just do the characters on the fly, but I do have a chart for them in my notes document for each project, and I note eye and hair color, car make, model, year, color, age, and character description, plus other small details I'm apt to lose track of. The only thing I do similar to this is when each character shows up in my story, I give him or her a secret. These do not always come out in the story later on, but they are very valuable for understanding each character's motivation. I highly recommend it, especially for those of us who write mysteries.

    1. Jan, I love the idea of giving every character a secret. I can see how that would give you a deeper insight into their behavior. I may steal that one. Thanks for commenting.

    2. I like your list, Susan. I also like the idea of giving each character a "secret." What I do is write a bio for each character before I start to write. I guess you'd call it a back story.

    3. Yes, Jan! I love my Excel file of character info. And I too give characters a 'secret'. Peter has a huge one, which will never be revealed!

    4. I don't keep my notes on an Excel file. I'm still using notecards, but I do like the idea of having the information readily to hand. Thanks for commenting, Sheila.

  3. Thanks, Jacquie. I want to know who these characters are before and while I'm writing. There's always room for surprise. I don't do a full bio, or know the whole back story, but I know enough to feel how they are in the world. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Love what you said about our characters sometimes startling us. I believe that's the mark of a well-rounded character.

    1. Startling the writer is also the most fun in writing. Thanks for the comment, Rosemary.

  5. I love to come up with flaws - large and small - for characters. And opinions! They have to have opinions.

    1. Flaws! Definitely! No one wants to read about the perfect person--far too boring. Thanks for coming by, Carolyn.

  6. Great list, Susan. I use a yellow tablet for new characters, research, etc., for each new book. I copied your list.

  7. I hope the list proves useful, Carole. I also make notes on a yellow tablet but they're pretty messy. Still, it seems to work for me. Thanks for commenting.

  8. An organized thinker/writer like you has provided an excellent guide for seasoned authors as well as beginners. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  9. Thanks for the compliment, Sharon. I don't often think of myself as an organized thinker/writer, but I like the sound of it.