Last spring I wrote a couple of blog posts about the various ways that writers develop characters. I was describing the process in general terms. Then last week, 3 no 7 asked some great questions, specifically about our characters. Here’s my attempt to answer a bit more fully.
3 no 7 asked: How do you, as an author, determine the personality, mannerisms, and eventual fate of your characters?
My early books came out of the mish-mash of my reading experience, writing teachers, critique partners, and life experiences. Knowing what my favorite genres expected, I chose characters to fill required roles, and then I modeled them after real people I knew. I filled out endless charts about the details of their lives. I gave each of them personality tests to see how they would behave on the way to the end, which I’d already figured out, based upon my reader expectations.
3 no 7 asked: Do you control the characters or do they control you?
In those early books, I was pretty much in control, since I decided everything about my characters. However, there was one character who threatened to take over the book, even though the book wasn’t about her. She nagged me relentlessly to keep her secret (I didn’t).
My next book was a turning point. I had no control of my characters. I thought I knew who the protagonist was, because I’d based her on my mother, who’d lost her struggle with Alzheimer’s. I knew how my book had to end, but my heart wanted to feel at peace, and so as the story unfolded, other characters jumped in, maybe to support me. When they started to act, it changed things. They surprised me with unexpected twists, which impacted my protagonist, who no longer resembled my mother. The book basically wrote itself, and I just buckled in for the ride at my keyboard.
3 no 7 asked: Do characters take on personalities different from their original personas?
Ever since that turning point, they mostly do. My characters usually end up quite different from my original concept of them.
When I started my Nell Letterly mysteries, I had a completely different character in mind (she had a different name, too). I thought the instructor at a karate studio should be a hotshot twenty-something with lots of physical skill. Trying to write that story felt as if my keyboard broke. My subconscious worked hard on that problem and eventually came up with the suggestion to make the character someone I could more easily identify with: a middle-aged suburban mom with more limited athletic skills. When I put that idea together with a news story that had caught my interest about a missing professor, Nell came to life and told me her story.
Usually, I don’t have the story until I have the character in place. Except for my expat mysteries.
3 no 7 asked: Do you start with a defining event and work forward and back or do events evolve as you write?
My two expat mysteries started with a real event, and then I worked backwards from that. In Dancing for the General, the event was the coup of 1960 in Turkey. My story is fiction, and it’s not about the coup itself. Instead, it’s about characters three years earlier, living in an environment that was building toward that event. The situation required certain types of characters, and I chose them from the cast of people I’d known there.
This was the first time I wrote out extensive bios of my characters. I had to know why and how they’d gotten to Turkey, and I had to know how they would react to the situation there. I couldn’t write the story without this information, so I had to have better control of these characters.
My second expat mystery is coming out next month, so I’ll save those answers for later.
Whew! That’s a long answer, and it’s not done yet. How about the rest of you? Can you elaborate more on 3 no 7’s questions?