Collecting characters

by Alex

I’ve had a couple of interviews in the last couple of weeks in which I was asked a question that completely threw me for a loop. The same question. “How do you create character?”

Now, you’d think that would be the easiest thing in the world for a writer to answer, right? As essential skills go, that’s about as basic as it gets. But being asked the question makes me realize I don’t think about it, I just do it.

Surely I have techniques that I’ve just internalized to the point that I am having trouble breaking them down.   So as soon as I get THE PRICE in  (Tuesday, and yes I am completely psychotic, thanks!)  I will put some serious thought into what those actual techniques are, since people are apparently going to be asking from now on.

But this is my theory for the day.   I think all writers are always collecting characters as we go along.   Not just characters of course, but bits and pieces of story. An interesting dynamic between people.  A theme.  A great character back story.  A cool occupation.  The look of someone’s eyes.  A burning ambition. Hundreds of thousands of bits of flotsam and jetsam that we stick in the back of our minds like the shelves full of buttons and ribbons and fabrics and threads and beads in a costumer’s shop.  Or like the prop warehouse that was in the vast basement under the theater at Berkeley – cages and cages and cages of (somewhat) categorized props – medieval, Renaissance, Greek, sci fi, fantasy.

To completely shift metaphors, I could also say that we take clippings of people, like you take clippings of plants, and grow them in a vast mental greenhouse until they’re fully formed or at least formed enough to plant somewhere where they will take root on their own.

The truth is I rarely start a story from a character – it’s usually more a situation, although the situation will usually dictate quite a bit about the characters involved.  If I want to write a story about a haunting in an old Victorian college dorm, that dictates that the main characters are going to be college kids. College kids have to have majors and it’s more interesting to have contrasting characters so assigning contrasting majors is going to further define character. I think books without sex are pretty much useless (at least to me) so that means at least some of these characters are going to be what I consider sexy, and my odd and eclectic personal tastes in all that is going to give at least some of these people an edge.   Also my personal theories about how a haunting happens is going to have a huge influence on the psychology of these characters, and so on, and so on.  So, yes, I can sort of fake an explanation about how I build characters from scratch.

But I think what happens more often than not is that at a certain point in outlining a plot, some of these characters I have growing or cooking back there in the costume shop or green house or prop warehouse or whatever you want to call it just step forth and take their place in the situation.    Not only that (to confuse the metaphors all to hell), I think I have some actual ACTORS back there in my mental wings who are able to play different parts.   There are certain characters who keep showing up in my writing, maybe heavily disguised and people don’t even necessarily recognize that they’re the same character, but I know it’s the same entity. Actors.

So yes, there are techniques you can use – give a character a burning desire (in the story AND in each scene) and a terrible secret, give them an arc, give them good scenes to play, give them dialogue tics, use shadow forms of mental disorders to define them, use Greek and other archetypes to define them…

But the real secret for me is – always be collecting.   Like those feral kids I was rambling on about last Saturday. You have to invite those potential characters in and let them live and grow inside your head. Yes, it gets pretty crowded in there after a while… but it’s all worth it when that perfect character for a scene or the perfect villain or protagonist just walks out onto the page, fully formed.

And now I’m almost afraid to ask, but  – is that just me?   What do YOU do?

(I will be at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Houston this week, doing signings, panels, and a performance of Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater.   Then in an act of sheer lunacy even for me, I’ll be flying back to LA Saturday night to do the LA Times Festival of Books on Sunday, signing at the Mysterious Galaxy booth at noon, Sisters in Crime from 1-3 pm, and the Mystery Bookstore at 3 pm – and possibly back to Sisters in Crime at 4 pm.   Hope to see some of you there!)

10 thoughts on “Collecting characters

  1. B.E. Sanderson

    It’s not just you. I do pretty much the same things. I used to be in outside sales – which not only gave me tons of characters to choose from but also gave me the opportunity to hone the skill of people watching. Off the top of my head, I’ve borrowed the appearance of a former co-worker, the mannerisms of a former manager, and the last name of a former client. My favorite character creation though came from a chance encounter at a public swimming pool. I never met the man, but after seeing him, I lay there baking myself and wondering what his life was like.

    I watch everything and then, either consciously or unconsciously, file it away for future use.

  2. pari

    Alex,I collect everywhere, all the time.

    My metaphor about it — today — is a stew. (Of course it would HAVE to do with food. . . )

    You throw all of these observations and sensations into the pot. If you cook them just right they maintain their unique character while adding to the flavor of the entire effort.

    BTW: I make a mean beef stew with veggies my kids would never try in a million years — but in the combination, somehow each one becomes part of something much better. The result is that they’ll eat the individual chunks of food without question because they have the faith that it’ll all taste good.

    Oh, heavens, I’m rambling . . .

  3. Alex Sokoloff

    B.E., I’ve always thought sales would be the perfect training for a writer. Infinite characters and plots!

    I laughed at your pool story – that is exactly the way it goes.

    Pari, of course the cooking metaphor is apt. I just wasn’t even going to go there with all the cooks on this board. Cooking is not MY metaphor, if you know what I mean!

  4. Louise Ure

    Like you, Alex, I seem to start with a situation. The character comes second.

    I don’t think I’ve ever used someone I know or someone I’ve seen in their entirety. There’s a gesture here. A verbal tic there. A back story I’ve borrowed from one and given the other.

    And it still amazes me that old friends think they know who I was talking about.

  5. Elaine Flinn

    Creating characters is probably one of the most intersting thing about writing – I read somewhere (can’t remember where now) that it is akin to being ‘God like’ in that you alone are responsible for a creation that must become a living entity for your reader. Warts and all…

    A character walking onto the page? Yep, I had that happen in my series. Bitsy Morgan did that. I had no idea who she was or where the hell she came from until she introduced herself to me one dark and stormy night as I sat before my computer. 🙂

    Great subject, Alex!

  6. Alex Sokoloff

    EE – you really do feel like God when a reader talks about your character as if they’re real people. THE most satisfying thing!

    Well, Louise, it’s flattering to be written about, so it doesn’t hurt to let your friends project a little!

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Weirdly, someone just asked me that question yesterday (maybe it’s something about the season), and I sort of looked blank a moment, because the truth was, my main character showed up almost whole, at my doorstep, informing me I was going to be writing about her. But it’s really odder than that, because the situation will also show up with that character. Yin/yang. I think the reason is that part of what I usually think about with character is “what are they most conflicted and yet most passionate about?” This will often point me at the very thing which then needs to be in jeopardy, hence the situation.

  8. simon

    I tend to use affectations for characters, but my characters tend to be shades of me. Combined with that my characters are born of the situation they find themselves in. I think of the situation first then come up with the kind of people I want in it.

  9. Alex Sokoloff

    Toni, yeah, the character just showing up does happen, often. What I wonder is – does it happen to anyone who hasn’t already been writing for a very long time?

    Simon, “affectations” is a good word. I think a lot of characters start in affectation and then build from there. That distinguishing characteristic is a good base for character.

  10. Cindy

    I am a student of police science and criminal psycology. As a research project we were given information on not well known cases. My assignment was to gather information on the pantyhose murders.

    The information given me was that this occured in the early 1970’s. The victims were all university girls. The victims were all wearing micro mini-skirts and pantyhose.

    The killer would hide inside their apartment. As soon as the girl would step inside the door, he would grab them and place them on the bed. He would put a pillow over their face and began suffocating them. He would revive them and smother them three or four times over. One girl he suffocated for forty five minutes before killing her.

    After smothering the life out of his victims he would remove their pantyhose and keep them for a sick trophy. The girls were not raped. They were found fully clothed with the exception of their missing pantyhose.

    Do any of you mystery writers know more info on this weird case?


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