It’s pretty obvious that
it’s the characters that carry a series of books and keep
the readers coming back. Everybody remembers Mike Hammer and Travis
McGhee but can you recall most of the titles? So it only makes sense
that authors invest a lot of time in developing the important characters.
One of the most intriguing things about writing fiction
is training yourself to build a character on every person you encounter
in your daily life. It’s a fun challenge and it changes the
way you look at everyone you meet.
Most of my characters are a blend of at least three real people.
I might take mannerisms from one, a temperament from another, and
physical traits from a third. I try not to put too much of any one
person into the mix. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone identifying
too closely with a murderer or any of the victims.
Sometimes the personality of one character is
determined by the qualities of another. A mob hit-man who only murders
rival mobsters might be a bad guy but if he invades an orphanage
with an assault rifle, he becomes an outrageous monster. He is defined
by his victims.
I tried an interesting experiment in one of my
books. I introduced a character and gave her a pretty generic name.
She had a past that most women would not normally escape. But this
woman had courage and fought her way to respectability. Some of
the dialogue that I gave her occasionally slipped into the “street
language” category. I made her a very likable person but never
gave a physical description of her. I asked a few people who had
read the book to describe her to me. About half of the people pictured
her as being white while the other half saw her as African-American.
I was happy knowing that readers could develop a vivid mental image
without having to draw them a portrait. It was the result that I
had hoped for.
A good writer can actually slip into the personality
of a character as he’s writing and provide a little soul to
make that person more believable and genuine and that’s one
of the rewards of being an author because you can actually include
a little of yourself.
The ability to develop believable and distinctive
characters is one of the most important skills that an author must
learn. Even a good story won’t save a novel full of faceless
and weak characters.
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