Monday, January 23, 2012

Where Do Your Characters Come From? by Camille LaGuire, Guest Blogger

My special guest today is Camille LaGuire, a Michigan writer of mystery and adventure stories. She has published fiction in magazines ranging from Cricket Magazine to Handheld Crime, to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. Her work has been reprinted in educational materials and overseas, and her short fiction has been nominated for Derringer awards. Her thriller play, Slayer of Clocks, was produced to sold-out audiences at the inaugural Discovering New Mysteries Festival in 2007.

Thanks for joining us today, Camille.

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Where Do Your Characters Come From? by Camille LaGuire, Guest Blogger


People ask how I come up with my characters. Do they come from people I know? Do I use character development sheets? Do they just spring fully formed from my imagination?

Characters are complicated. They may develop in all of those ways and more. For me they often start with an image, or an idea, but they usually come to life with an emotion -- something that feels like the heart of the character.

The title character in my latest book, George Starling, started when I was thinking about old-fashioned action stories. What would happen if this masterful "take charge" guy were to take his rescued damsel home and move in? He might come across to her family as a dangerous control freak. I had some fun with that, coming up with amusing or dramatic misunderstandings, but it didn't lead to a compelling character.

But then I thought: what if he wasn't really a masterful action hero who arrogantly takes control of every situation, but just a guy who has a compulsive need to make things better? What if he's trapped by his own need to rescue people? What if he needs to be rescued from himself?

That was everything I needed. With that question, I knew what his deepest worries were and his greatest desires. I even knew his blind spots, which is important to any character. But even more than that, I now not only had a character, I had the theme and title of the story: The Man Who Did Too Much.

Is George like anyone I know? No, he's a fantasy cliche made gently human. I mean, sure, I use my own feelings of pride or self-doubt, or annoyance to inform my writing on any character. But I don't know anybody like him. I wish I did. (I sometimes have fantasies of George stepping into real life, and staging a coup at my day job or in local politics. It's something that I imagine he might do if his girlfriend were inconvenienced in any way....)

The other major character in The Man Who Did Too Much is Karla Marquette. Her creation was more deliberate. There were two things I wanted to do:

The first thing I wanted was to write a mystery series in the old-school way, with a quirky, highly intellectual but perhaps socially inept master detective. I was thinking about detectives like Mrs. North, and Nero Wolfe, and even Ellery Queen. Happy, contented people without a driving problem, and who are a little detached from reality, and therefore able to see things that others can't.

I also wanted to try writing a character who was very close to home. Perhaps someone based on, uh, ... me. Or elements of me; my foibles, highly exaggerated. And, I'm afraid, the whole "detached from reality" thing made me an obvious match for that classic detective.

But, of course, Karla is not me. I let her grow out of a collection of quirks. She didn't click, though, until I stuck her in some scenes with George, and then it all came together. Karla is the opposite of George. He has wide experience of the world and reality, and she barely leaves her house, but while he has no idea how to be happy, Karla is a master at it. If anybody can rescue George, it's Karla.

It feels like magic when characters click like that, but in reality, that comes from a lot of work. I played those characters in my head for months, maybe years. I let them play through all kinds of scenes, sometimes replaying the same scene in different ways, to let them grow the way little kids grow. They succeed and fail and learn, and I learn with them.

But I'll admit it, I don't know if this is the best way to develop characters. I only know that it's the most fun. It really comes down to playing with the characters. It's why I write -- I end up falling in love with them and I have to tell their stories.

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The Man Who Did Too Much is the first of the Starling and Marquette mysteries, a combination of cozy mystery and comic suspense which take place in northern lower Michigan. Camille also writes the Mick and Casey Mysteries, about a pair of young married gunslingers who solve mysteries in the old west.

Learn more about Camille and her books at her website. You can follow her ongoing adventures in writing at her blog The Daring Novelist. Camille is also on Twitter.

8 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Camille.

Camille - Oh I agree completely! Coming up with characters who become real and "click" really is like magic. Like you, I think about characters for a while before I write about them. It's almost as though they need to introduce themselves to me, and I need to know them a little before I write them.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

All of my characters have come from imagination and not one is like someone I know in real life. Or myself. Well, not really.

Clarissa Draper said...

I'm like you, I get to know my characters over time and eventually fall in love with them. Great post and love the cover of your book!

The Daring Novelist said...

I want to thank Pat for hosting.

Alex: yeah, you know, Karla is the only character I've even considered taking from life. Well, have been inspired by nasty people I knew in developing a villain -- but not that closely. More in motivation than anything.

Margot and Clarissa: living with characters can be like living with small children. I've been in the grocery store, and thought about what sort of things my characters would buy... and the next thing you know, I have stuff in my cart that I don't want!

Oh, and thanks, Clarissa, about the cover. It's a simple cover, but I really love it. The figure is supposed to represent the body, but in some ways it also represents George.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I had one character show up in a dream, but most of the others just seem to wander into my brain uninvited and apparently from nowhere. I love that.

Thanks for being here, Camille.

mtlogan said...

Camille,
Great post! My characters come mostly from my imagination, with a few initially based on people I knew in real life. But I find that once I begin writing they take on a life of their own. And some of my most outrageous characters simply show up.

irishoma said...

Hi Pat,
Thanks for hosting Camille.

Hi Camille,
Fascinating post. I write short stories and not novels, but it's wonderful to fall in love with my characters, and it's amazing when they surprise me.

Donna V.

The Daring Novelist said...

Pat: oh yeah, I get a lot of ideas from dreams. I think I've trained my unconscious to be story oriented.

MT: yeah, it's fun when they are just there, whole. Those actually can be the best.

Donna: short fiction gives you less time on the page to get to know you characters, but they're still there, living it out for you.