Thursday, October 18, 2012

Getting into Your Characters

As I’ve said earlier, you should develop your plot and characters at the same time. Usually, my stories begin with “a cool idea.” Something that turns me on and makes me want to develop a plot and characters to go with the idea.

What if a man had lived for 500 years, and he needed to hide his longevity (MORE THAN A MAN)? What if a woman met the ghost of a man she’d loved and lost (CHAINED)? What if a doctor had a fake fertility clinic where he tried to increase the intelligence of children but created a race of telepaths instead (SUDDEN INSIGHT and SUDDEN ATTRACTION)?

From an idea like that, I develop a plot. And as I plot my story, I’m always thinking about the characters. I have an idea of who they are before I start writing. In HER BABY’S FATHER, for example, I knew my heroine was a woman from a middle-class background who falls in love with a man from a wealthy family. He’s murdered, and she’s left pregnant with his child. As the book opens, she’s in labor on the way to the hospital, when she’s killed in a car crash. Instead of taking her to heaven, angels send her back in time to the day she met her lover—and she has a chance to change history and save his life.

That’s the dramatic idea that sparked the plot, but to flesh out the story, I needed to know a lot about the heroine.

I had some ideas about her when I started writing the book. I wanted her to be self-sufficient and have a job that showcased her artistic talents. I wanted her to live in a small town where I could contain the action of the story. And I wanted a secret in her background that the hero’s family would use against her.

But there was so much more I needed to know. What’s her job? What are her goals and aspirations? Is she brave and determined enough to save the man she loves? How does she react when she’s in danger? How does she handle shifting reality when the things that happened before come out differently?

I came up with those details before I started writing. But, as always, I really got to know her when I was writing the first few chapters of the book.

When I write characters, I’m usually more interested in their interior traits than their physical appearance. But I've obviously got to describe them to the reader, and I will admit that all the guys in my books look like my husband if they don’t, I’m lying about it. (Well, they’re taller and slimmer.)

I can’t get very far in the process of thinking about a major character, without giving him or her a name. The names of your characters should be very conscious choices. Percy, Josephine, Ted, Norman, Dirk Pitt, Mannix, Elizabeth, Liz, Betty. They all convey a shorthand impression of the person. And don’t forget to read a name aloud if you’re considering it. Try not to select a tongue twister.

The names of the hero and heroine are very important—and also the villain. With minor characters, not so much. In fact I need to keep a list of minor characters’ names so I won’t switch them in the middle of the manuscript.

You can go either with names that are unusual or popular. Jayne Krentz is famous for giving her characters names that sound a little different—which works for her. I often use names that are popular. A good source for those is the Social Security Data Base of Baby Names:

It gives you the ten most popular names from last year, but you can reset the table to give you a hundred names, or even more. And if you write historicals, you can reset to give you popular names from previous years.

Of course, there are tons of baby-name books. One that I’ve been using for years is The Baby Boomer Book of Names, by Roger Price, et al. What I particularly like about it is the section that gives names by country of origin. When I’m looking for a foreign last name that’s easy to pronounce, I may use an ethnic male first name as a last name for a character.

For example, Garner is actually a male first name of French origin. Eldridge is an Old English male first name, as is Hale. Warner is a male first name of German origin. You can also find ethnic names on various Web sites.

After you’ve come up with a name, there are several left-brain (logical) techniques for getting to know your characters. One is the character interview, which can go far toward helping you create characters who are three-dimensional.

This one comes from Diane Chamberlain, author of many novels including The Good Father. Play the part of your character and fill in the blanks:

I love_______________________________
I hate_______________________________
I am embarrassed by __________________
I want a man who______________________
My mother____________________________
My father_____________________________
My family_____________________________
My biggest flaw is______________________
Eating is_____________________________
Sex is_______________________________
Traveling is___________________________
Money is_____________________________
My house is___________________________
My life is_____________________________
Work is_______________________________
People are____________________________
The world is___________________________
Religion is____________________________
Government is_________________________
_______________________________makes me happy
_______________________________makes me sad
_______________________________makes me frightened
_______________________________makes me proud
_______________________________makes me lonely
_______________________________embarrasses me
_______________________________frightens me
I don’t want anybody to know that____________________
I am afraid of___________________________________
I like to wear____________________________________
I hate to wear___________________________________
The worst man for me is___________________________
Since I was a child I______________________________
If I could do one thing I would_______________________
Nobody ever____________________________________
People think I___________________________________
I wish _________________________________________
I never_________________________________________
I always________________________________________
If I could change one thing__________________________
I hope_________________________________________

If you go through this list with your character, you will come up with all sorts of insights you didn’t know before.

There’s a whole lot more to discuss on the subject of character development. Next time I’ll share more techniques that can help you come up with rounded characters, including using the Myers-Briggs personality types.

What methods do you use for creating characters who are three-dimensional?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

More on Details

One point I want to pound into you is that a novel is not reality, but you must make it seem real to the reader. You do this with realistic characters and a plot that makes sense—and also with the details that you select for your story. Each detail, no matter how small is important.

My own inclination is to know as much as I can before I start to write a  manuscript, but some details will not come up until I’m in the midst.  Nevertheless, these elements must be considered carefully.

I want to use DARK POWERS, my new Decorah Security novel, as an example.  The idea for the book began with a character—Ben Walker, whom readers met in DARK MOON. During a near-death experience, Ben acquired the power to touch a dead body and get the person’s last memories. I wanted to write his story, but what was the best way to do it?

First I needed a plot where he could use his psychic talent, and I decided that if he discovered the victims of a serial killer, he would know who murdered them.

Next I needed a heroine, and I came up with Sage Arnold, a hard-working accountant whose half sister, Laurel Baker, is kidnapped.

To create complications for Ben and Sage, I wanted the local police to insist that Laurel is a runaway. Why are they turning a blind eye to reality?  What’s their motivation?  And how can they get away with their behavior?

Because this plot element had to be plausible, I thought about where I could set the story and determined that the best place would be a small town run by an “old-boy network” where most of the income comes from tourism.  I could make those requirements work in a number of locations, but I decided to focus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore because it’s out of the mainstream and because I’ve gone there many times to do research for books.

Should you use real names of places for your work?  I do think actual places  add verisimilitude, and I often use genuine details like restaurant, city, and street names; but I have a rule that if I’m going to say something really bad about a place, I give it a fictitious name.  Since the conspiracy of silence in town is a major theme in DARK POWERS, I set the story in a place I called Doncaster, although the physical features match St. Michaels, Maryland, pretty well.

The name of my fictitious town is a detail I considered carefully.  Since Oxford and Cambridge are both located near St. Michaels, I continued the British theme and found Doncaster on a map of England.

Once I’d settled on Doncaster as my setting, I looked for authentic details that would make the story more vivid. The main industry on the Eastern Shore used to be fishing and crabbing, along with farming, which is why it makes sense to have abandoned warehouses and crab processing plants that are excellent locations to hide a dead body.  And on the outskirts of  St. Michaels is a newly developed golf course community—another prime setting for a body to turn up.

In town, I used  the seafood restaurant on the waterfront in St. Michaels/Doncaster, where diners can arrive on foot, by car, or by boat.  Then there’s the police station, located in a converted Victorian house. It’s charming on the outside and all business on the inside. (And I had the nasty idea to have my hero and heroine locked in jail cells there overnight.)

And where could a local resident stash a kidnap victim and keep her captive for several months before killing her?  That would have to be in an isolated area but one that was an easy drive from downtown Doncaster—where my kidnapper/serial killer works.

My heroine, Sage Arnold, grew up in Doncaster and has a love/hate relationship with the town. We see the community and its people through her eyes and also through Ben Walker’s eyes. I’m able to introduce the setting as Sage shows Ben around, commenting on the residents as she drives by shops and houses.

Scenes set in the various locations around town allowed me to drop clues about the kidnapper and the victim, clues that only become obvious near the end of the book.

And one detail that turned out to be essential—how does Ben see the last memories of murder victims and not the murderer’s face?  I decided he had to wear a black hood that hid his features from Ben—and from the reader.

In summary, never include a detail without carefully considering what role it will play in the story.  Think of the details as enriching your book and helping to make your fictional universe real to the reader.

What do you think about when considering the setting for a story?  How have you used details to make your fiction richer?