Have you ever been asked the question: Where do your characters come from?
I often wonder when I sit down at the computer and a personality emerges, with quirks and histories I didn’t outline or think through: Did I know a person like this? Or did I merely see someone at a party, a Dodger game, a museum who inspired the thought?
Most recently a wrote a book where the female character wears heels always, because of her diminutive stature, and always curls those legs up to sit cross-legged on any surface that isn’t a chair. Was it her history that gave her this quirk? A rebellious background (she’s a true American Gypsy) that had her sitting on tables rather than chairs? Or was it purely about being less that tall, so she didn’t want to be at the same level or lower than others when she was sitting down? Or was it a physical condition that made sitting in that posture merely the most comfortable?
Personally, I have no idea. I sat down to write a scene, and as it emerged from my fingertips, the quirks became a natural part of the action. And the book is not completed, so I still haven’t attached a reason for it yet. Now I would guess that some of you are nodding your heads. Your heroes & heroines and their personal characteristics emerge in the same manner. Others of you are appalled. How can you portray someone doing that without thinking things through and meticulously outlining their background?
I’m sure others have addressed this is classes or seminars, and probably in a more quality manner. Regardless, this is my question of the month: whether you are building the perfect hero, aspect by aspect in an outline, or if they spring whole and complex, birthed from a few lines in a scene, where do they come from?
For me, I don’t really remember ever meeting anyone who fits the description of my gypsy girl. But it must have come from somewhere. Even my busy to chaotic imagination usually doesn’t concoct someone out of air. Perhaps she is pieced together from a dozen souls whose path I’ve crossed over the years. When I originally planned this book, she was still short, but her history, her quirks and her personality are nothing like the person who has emerged onto the page.
Yes, I went through a planning stage for a number of books. Back in the 80’s (geez I turn 52 in a couple of weeks!) I attended my first Romance Writing seminar. One of the techniques that came out of the class was to identify and outline a “couple” who will be the center of your book. I created several, with a couple of lines describing each, a paragraph or so about their history, and a plot line that I thought would enable them to meet, fight, love, leave and reunite for happily ever after.
I still have those yellowing pages of notes. Three of those pairs live in three of the books I have completed over the years. (Other recent manuscripts evolved from other sources). I have about five more who still are waiting for me to write their story. What’s funny is those I did write about remind me of the remodeling jobs of some houses in old neighborhoods: you keep that one foundation beam or wall in the house, and per zoning law, it’s not a new house, although everything around it may change absolutely.
And so it is with my characters. They started as one type a person -- In the case of my Gypsy, she was a mousy, bank teller with psychic visions – and as the book begins, she evolves into a character for today – a sassy, secure, security software designer (I really didn’t mean to add all that alliteration J), who has a past as a con artist. Still short, with long dark hair, but now she wears heels and sits on tabletops. And, I handed the psychic abilities over to her love interest, an LAPD cop. He was always the cop, but he was the cynical disbeliever. Now he’s still the cynical disbeliever, but he has this annoying yet useful ability to be able to tell when someone is lying, and the frightening ability to see when a crime is going to happen.
Where did they spring from? Stories we’ve read? You hope you’re not Xeroxing someone else’s character from an old memory, but one would guess you couldn’t help but retain some quirk that sticks in your mind. Articles in the newspaper? Forensic Files? CSI? Your next door neighbor? That family at Disneyland? (Have you seen some of those people?)
We are all observers of the human condition, of people whose lives we interpret and then relay on paper. Let us hope we continue to take what we see, and spin it into a tale that brings joy to our readers and insight to our world.