Posts Tagged ‘development’


     No matter how many times I hear writers state that they don’t know where their ideas come from (“they just kind of come to me…”) I don’t buy it.  Maybe they don’t want to give their secrets away, or maybe they are trying to convince their audience that their minds are so enigmatic that they defy logical explanation, or maybe they’re just incredibly unaware of themselves; I don’t know, but any way I look at it, I think the answer to that question is simple.  Ideas come from people.  And more more specifically, (fictional) people come from (real-life) people.  At least, that’s the way it’s always been in my case.  To a point.

     While I have never created a character that was based entirely on anyone I knew, I have relentlessly and unapologetically stolen little pieces of my friends, my family, my neighbors, my childhood friends, the lady at Wal-Mart with the thigh highs and hair rollers, and the most obvious of all, myself.   I have taken their eyes, their wit, their courage, their pride, and in some cases, I have even taken their heinousness.  Often times I have done this unconsciously, and only after having brought the character to full form, read him or her back to myself and said, “Wow.  This guy is just like cousin Bobby!”   Other times, I see some trait or personality quirk in a person and am writing it down right away, already knowing exactly which character to assign that quality to.  No matter which way it’s done, I like to think of this as (politely) kidnapping my friends. 

     To (politely) kidnap your friends, you must first of all be subtle about it.  Remember, you’re a thief in the night, not the paparazzi.  To follow people around, notebook and pen at the ready, will not do.  Nor will photographing complete strangers (unless you’re really smooth about it), feigning a heart attack to test their level of emergency response, showing an overt sexual interest in their spouse to assess their level of temper, or confiding to anyone, friend or not, “I’ve killed a man… but don’t tell anyone,” to gauge their degree of trustworthiness. 

     To (politely) kidnap your friends, you must be respectful.  Sometimes, your rapport with someone is such that you can point at the interesting trait or physical attribute, wave the pointed finger Karen Walker-style and say, “I like that.  I’m going to take it,” and it’s all good.  Other times, depending on the singularity or uniqueness of the trait, you may feel you need to ask permission.  However, more often than not, I think the key to successfully (politely) kidnapping your friends lies in the imagination it takes to tweak the desired quality enough that by the end, it is, if not entirely unrecognizable, at least doctored up enough that it feels unique to the character you’ve assigned it to.

     That being said, I’ve broken all of these rules myself.  The good news is, no one has legal claim to eye color, sense of humor, height, sincerity levels, etc… even names are pretty much up for grabs.  Still, I do think it’s important that, when fashioning a character after someone you know, you do so in a way that when people ask you, “where do you get your ideas?!”, you can smile knowingly, and confidently answer, “I don’t know… they just kind of come to me…” 

     I don’t know why it’s important, but it must be…

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     I’ve finally moved past a major roadblock in An Evil Heart.  “Evil Heart” is the working title of the joint-effort book I’ve been writing with my friend and mentor, Mimi (Kim Williams-Justesen – check her out at http://kwjwrites.wordpress.com/). 

    The problems I kept encountering were aspects of the main characters past and how they served to motivate him in the present.  The trouble was, what I’d come up with so far didn’t make sense to me.  I didn’t believe that the things this guy had experienced in his life would prompt him to be such a monster.  After all, this guy is a narcissistic, nearly sociopathic, somewhat-obsessive-compulsive serial killer, so whatever he’s been through in his life (if the reader is going to sympathize with him even a little bit), it must have been some pretty hellish and dreadful things.  I didn’t want to simply slap a psychological disorder on him (although I’m certain there’s a little of that going on too), so I had to do something that was harder than I thought it would be:  I had to conjure up some of the most terrible things you could put a child through, sift through those hideous scenarios and apply the ones that made the most sense to the story.  Granted, this is not a story about a mans troubled boyhood, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time there, but it is important that I (and whoever might one day read it) understand why this man is the way he is.

     Mimi and I have been meeting on Wednesdays and Saturdays to work on this book, so this week when she came over, we spent several hours talking about this guy (his name is Sterling) and trying to determine the horrors he must have endured as a young boy.  Success in this incites a terrible contrast of emotion: you are giddy… because you have just concocted the most awful kind of abuse you can think of.  This is one of many unexpected and uncomfortable surprises I have encountered in this whole fiction writing thing.

     I am continually amazed and thrilled by the things I am learning in this.  There seems to be an endless reservoir of things I still don’t know and want desperately to understand, and what I’ve just recently learned is that it is impossible to write a character and his or her story if you don’t fully understand who he or she is.  It’s not one of those things, unfortunately, that you can make up as you go.  If you do not know where a character is coming from, it’s impossible to understand where they’re going.  The characters I have written before this one have all been pretty well-developed.  They were very old and I’d spent a couple of years mulling over them before I sat down to write their story.  In that time, without even meaning to, I came to understand them all quite well.  But this guy is new, so this is, in a sense, an entirely new experience for me.  Not to mention, this is the first character I’ve written (on this intimate of a level) who is this dark, this heinous… this capable of such wicked things.  It is enough that I sometimes squirm under the wretchedness of this guy.  But overall, it is good for me.  I want to learn to write diverse characters and the one I’m writing now is, no doubt,  going to extend my skill, burst my comfort bubble, and teach me new methods of execution.  It is an intimidating and frightening thing to see the world through his eyes, and should this book ever reach publication, I have no doubt I will be crucified by the critics… but I have avoided it for too long and I am coming to understand that this is what it’s all about: that willingness to reach into the deepest recesses of psyche and dark fantasy…

     As Mimi continually reminds me, “You have to be willing to dance with crazy.”  Now… I understand that.


     I’m learning that character development is less about conscious endeavor and more about letting your characters “tell” you about themselves.  When I first heard other writers talk about this phenomenon, I thought it was silly.  I couldn’t understand how a character could make their own choices, choose their own voice or, in more extreme cases, shape the plot according to their own agendas.  I feel very differently about that now.  Now I understand exactly what other writers are talking about when they say things like, “Oh, my characters just kind of take on a life all their own,” or, “Well, I intended to kill so and so, but the bastard simply refused to die!” 

     When a character begins to tell you his or her own story, it is an experience that borders on being eerie.  It’s foreign.  It is an almost supernatural anomaly.  After all, when a person that you created begins dictating to you what needs to happen, you tend to question your sanity.  For the most part, however, I’ve come to understand this as a natural, albeit strange, part of the creative process.  Once you get past the surprise of being given orders by an imaginary personality, and if you dare to let it take you where it wants to go, it won’t matter anymore where the “voices” are coming from; all that matters is that somehow, it works. 

     That being said, I also know that I must keep a close eye on my characters.  You can’t let them run the show entirely.  Some of them are helpful to the plot while others are untrustworthy and will manipulate the story to become all about themselves.  I try to let the characters do a lot of the talking while simultaneously keeping a close watch on the plot to be sure we don’t veer too far off into left field.

     Overall, my experiences with the characters tops the list of my favorite things about writing fiction.  I love the little surprises each character brings to the story and nothing makes me happier than when one of them does something so off the wall that even I didn’t see it coming.  I am a little bit in love with all of my characters and I think that’s important.  If you are writing a novel, you will be spending an awful lot of time with each of these guys, and if you hate them at a base level, it’s bound to be a most unpleasant experience.

     Right now, I am writing the most difficult character I’ve ever had to before.  He goes by the name of Sterling Bronson and he is violent and dark… he is all of the things we are taught not to be.  Since my time with this character hasn’t reached completion, I am currently blind to the methods with which I will have to deal with him.  So instead of focusing on him, I will go back to the major players of The White Room, where I can, in hindsight, more clearly give a brief synopsis of my experience with each of them.

     Cadence Walker ~ This is probably my oldest character.  Although he has evolved substantially since then, he was first conceived of in the mid-nineties when I first began trying to write fiction.  He was also my easiest character and I think that’s because he’s a lot like myself.  I had no trouble finding, and for the most part maintaining his voice once I sat down to write the story.

     Brooks Jacobi ~ Brooks is by far my favorite character.  He seems to be a kind of hybrid between my best friend growing up, and that more irresponsible, less stressed side of my own nature.  The first scene I ever “saw” from The White Room was one of Brooks’ scenes, so in a sense, he kicked the whole project off and got the ball rolling.  For the story’s sake, Brooks had to be Cadence’s polar opposite and I worried that they might somehow bleed into each other and become indistinguishable, but Brooks maintained his integrity throughout, making my job a whole lot easier.  I feel there is a lot more to Brooks than I was able to cover in the span of one book, and since writing the words “The End”, I have been unsuccessfully trying to find ways of revisiting him.

     Aunt Mimi ~ In spite of being a religious zealot as well as a forgetful and hopeless alcoholic, Aunt Mimi is a basic, static character set in place for the sole purpose of moving the plot.  What’s interesting about her is that she was a complete surprise.  I didn’t write her into the outline but when she showed up, I just felt I needed to trust her and I’m glad I did.  She was the most fun to write.  If anyone close to me ever saw me typing and giggling away at my laptop, I would personally guarantee it was an Aunt Mimi scene I was writing.

     Sheila Leventis ~ Like Aunt Mimi, Sheila was a surprise.  Her main purpose in this story was to support the main characters and the plot.  I deliberately gave her no real zest.  She was a quiet character who let the story work around her.  Even at the end, she was probably the only one who really never knew what was going on.

     Michal ~ This was the hardest character for me.  I had a hard time keeping consistency with him.  At times, he was this hip psuedo-cowboy type while at other times, he was a kind of wise, fatherly type.  Of all my characters, Michal was the one who, more than once, forced me to rewrite entire scenes.  In the beginning, he spoke in articulate, proper sentences.  By the end, he was like, “So, hey… ya wanna talk?”  It wouldn’t do of course, so I ended up having to revise him to the point I really just kind of wanted him to die.  But I love him… he ended up being a good character.

     Winter ~ This guy was awesome.  Winter just kind of came to me fully-formed one day and said, “Hey, here I am.  Do something with me.”  He became an integral part of the story on top of being a lot of fun to write.  Winter gave me no grief.  He was compliant, professional and well-rounded.  Of all the characters, Winter is the one I could most easily and naturally continue with.  He seems to have a story all his own and I think he wants it told.  Maybe one day…

     Gretchen ~ While Michal was hard to write because his personality was difficult to pin down, Gretchen was hard for very different reasons.  She came to me a long time ago, fully-formed and ready for action.  Her original purpose as far as I was concerned was to simply make an appearance and die in a way that moved the story into the more multi-layered recesses of plot.  However… that’s not at all what happened.  This character was one the ones I warned you about, one of the untrustworthy ones.  Persnickety to the point of maddening, Gretchen gave me more hell than any other character.  For one thing, she went through about seven name changes before finding the one that “felt” right.  Secondly, she nearly became the central figure of the story, moving the plot this way and that until it was so tightly wrapped around her that I had to consciously reel it in and redirect my focus.  In short, Gretchen is a diva and given an inch, she would have taken six miles.  I had to limit her voice while at the same time recognizing the value of the places this character wanted to go.  Although she evolved into much more than she was originally intended to be, and moved the story into entirely unexpected directions, it ended up being okay.  But I was wise to keep her on a short leash.

     Sebastian ~ This guy was fun.  I don’t remember exactly where he came from but shortly after Gretchen was developed, he was there, waiting to be heard.  Sebastian became an important player in the plot and he was natural and easy to write.  I like characters like him.

     Jazminka ~ It all started with the boots.  About fifteen years ago, I had this strange dream about a woman wearing the most insanely strange pair of thigh-high boots I had ever seen.  Among their other oddities, these boots had sharp, steel heels that made these incredibly ominous thudding sounds when she walked.  I never forgot those boots and when I first contrived the character Jazminka, I thought it would be awesome to put her in them.  Shortly after that, it occurred to me that these boots would make great weapons.  One of the first things I knew about Jazminka was that she could kill a man in less than seven seconds without spilling a single drop of blood… with her boots.  So Jazminka was easily designed around that deadly footwear I dreamed of as a teenager.  It was nice to pull something from a dream because I didn’t even have to think about it.  Her hair, however, was another story.  I wanted to give her a crew cut but was promptly told, “hell no”, and “don’t you dare”, by the few (and the brutally honest) who were critiquing my manuscript as it was being written.  Reluctantly, I gave her an ’80’s bouffant.

     Angel ~ This character was just full of surprises.  He began as a kind of filler, just there to people the story and then BAM!… he became something I hadn’t at all intended.

     Veritas ~ There wasn’t really much room for this poor guy.  He was well-formed in my mind but unfortunately didn’t get much of a part, although the part he did get was definitely memorable.

    Mahallia ~ My least favorite character.  Mahallia was an afterthought and I never liked her.  She came to be because Veritas’ part was so suddenly minimized and I needed a way to move through the end.  If this book never sees the shelf of a bookstore, I will always blame Mahallia…

     And so… this has been my experience in character development thus far.  I am still learning and growing and it’s my hope that I will continue to have as much fun in the future as I continue on this journey.  I understand fictional characters in a way I never thought I would.  The ins and outs of the people who drive our stories surprise and delight me at every turn.  As I said, getting to know the characters is my favorite part about writing fiction.  The characters will make or break a story, they will surprise us by playing parts we hadn’t intended.  Some will bring value to the story while others, if allowed, will sabotage it… but of all the things I’ve learned about character development, what surprises me most is that, crazy as it sounds… they really do have minds of their own.