Thursday, May 21, 2009

Some Thoughts About Creating Characters

As I read through my advance review copy of The Desert Hedge Murders, I'm reminded how much fun I had creating and writing about The Florida Flippers, a travel club of elderly ladies. One of the ladies, Kristina Grisseljon, is the mother of my protagonists, Sylvia Thorn and Willie Grisseljon. Kristina is a spirited gal who loves to read mysteries (primarily police procedurals), travel, and meddle in her children's affairs. The travel club was formed years ago when all of the ladies lived in the same retirement community and all were enthusiastic fans of the Miami Dolphins.

I needed models for my characters to make it easier to establish individual personalities. Luckily, I just happened to have a few cousins and a much-loved sister-in-law who could provide all of the idiosyncracies I needed. And just for fun, I used their first names for their characters.

Linda Swayble, for example, is named after my sister-in-law. I added about fifteen years to her age, exaggerated a couple of her most endearing personality traits, and then expanded her bio, description, and speech mannerisms. Then I dumped her into the story to see what she would do. She was full of surprises. Linda of the mystery novel was a first-class worrier and way more timid than I expected. The real Linda, who died in March from the end stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease she'd been fighting for years, was one of the bravest women I've ever known. I will miss her very much.

Three cousins were the models for Marianne, Gail, and Diane. In real life, they're sisters. In my book, they're not related. I've assured the cousins I will let everyone know my Flippers are drawn completely from my imagination and not from real life. For instance, my red-haired cowgirl wannabe Marianne, who line dances with the sexy cowboys at a country bar in Davie, Florida, and plays Blackjack in Laughlin, Nevada, is actually a lovely white-haired grandmother and first-grade schoolteacher in Oklahoma.

Similarly, the real Gail would never kick anyone with her orthopedic boots, unless he truly deserved it, and Diane did not really win the lottery and does not live in The Sanctuary in Boca Raton, Florida.

Using real people to create characters in a novel has certain risks, of course. For instance, did I have someone in mind for the killer(s) and victim(s) in the Sylvia and Willie mysteries? No, definitely not. Really. Although someone who knew me in high school thought I was very tough on old boyfriends in The Prairie Grass Murders, which was set in central Illinois where we grew up. But those were Sylvia Thorn's old boyfriends, not mine. Honest.


Anonymous said...

Good subject subject and interesting to read how you go about it. My characters are usually drawn from real life experiences, people I've known, etc. Most often though, a character in my book will be a composite - looks from this one, emotional make-up from another - that sort of thing.

The Old Silly from Free Spirit Blog

Galen Kindley said...

I believe great characters are 80 percent of a great story.

I do as you do. I model some of character actions and idiosyncrasies after people I know, or, have met casually. I watch people and try to note and catalogue odd…no, better call that, interesting behaviors. For physical descriptions, I get a picture of someone off the internet who my mind’s-eye tells me is what I want my character to look like, save it on my desktop and refer to it as needed.

Best Regards, Galen

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting post. I agree with Marv--my characters are usually composites. When they actually are very similar to people I know, I'm very careful to change their physical description and name to something completely different.


Karen Walker said...

So interesting to read how you fiction writers go about creating characters.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I think you were brave to use names of relatives! Like others have said, my characters are also composites and I try to stay away from using names or personality traits of people I know.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

Patricia Stoltey said...

Perhaps I'd best clarify, Jane. I only used their first names and I let them know ahead of time so they could say no. At mystery fan conventions, writers auction off the opportunity to have a character named after the lucky high bidder. It's a very popular charity auction item.

Jina Bacarr said...

Thoughtful and fun post.

Good job.


K. A. Laity said...

I often worry about the risks when I steal from a real-life action or event, but I have found people seldom recognize themselves when their self-image is so far removed from reality.

N A Sharpe said...

I love reading how others develop their characters. I have used real people as the base of my characters too and built on that by exaggerating characteristics or blending them with characteristics from someone else. I think it gives you a baseline for keeping your characters real, too.

I had to smile at the comment about auctioning off the chance to have a character named after you - I won that as a doorprize at a writers conference once. My character was to be the first female president of the US who happens to be a vampire. Hmmm...wonder how that piece is coming along (grin)

Good post!


Karen Brees said...

Nice post. It's definitely fun to model characters on people you know. It can also be extremely therapeutic.