Getting To Know You…

JT Ellison

Getting to know all about you…

Tra-la-la. Be glad you don’t hear me singing it. Just try to
imagine the dulcet tones of Deborah Kerr in Rogers and Hammerstein’s
classic, The King and I. I’m not quite sure why that song popped into my head
when I wrote the title for this week’s blog, but it’s fitting.

How well do you really know your characters? Are you really
as intimate as you should be?

Coming up with a character is easy. You give them a name, an
occupation, and a reason for visiting your story. Developing that character
into a living, breathing, vital aspect of your manuscript, one that
successfully propels your story forward, is another phenomenon entirely.

There are a few things that are an absolute for me when I
develop a character. The most important is a name. As I begin writing a new
manuscript, I make a cast list. All the main characters are there, as well as
all the secondary characters. Everyone who is going to make an appearance in
the story is named and accounted for.

A couple of rules that I like to follow when it comes to
developing character names – One, make the name pronounceable. Two, especially
for secondary and tertiary characters, make their name fit. If you’re writing a
story about white slavery, an unhappy stripper named Tatiana will convey the
message more effectively than an unhappy stripper named Jane.

Where do the names come from? I’ll admit, there have been
the times, (in the past, of course, cough, cough,) I’ve been in a pinch and
looked to my reference bookshelf. I pick a first name and last name at random.
Problem is, when you’ve been working on a manuscript for four straight months
with the same bookshelf of reference material, you’re going to duplicate
yourself. I was caught by one of my readers. I’d used Richard Curtis and Curtis
Richard. For shame. Now, I use every available resource. Magazines like Maxim
and FHM always have great names. There are websites that use algorithms to mix
and match names to degree. You get the drift – finding sources to pull from is

Since I’ve recently started on the third Taylor Jackson/John
Baldwin manuscript, I’m familiar with my main characters and the people they
work with on a daily basis. Secondary characters that are making their
second or third appearance are simple to keep up with. But the new primary and
secondary characters need defining, and I need a new list of tertiary
characters and one-timer throw-in names.

My very first step is to build the list of names. In my new
book, there is a big cast of secondary characters. A big cast. My list has
sixty-eight new character names on it. I know I’ll use up at least twenty-eight
right off the bat. I have a new character who has a whole team behind her, so
there’s another nine. See where I’m going? I never want to be left out in the
cold when it comes to naming my characters.

Unfortunately, as well intentioned as I am with my cast
list, there are characters who pop up unexpectedly and announce, “Hey, I’m
here. This is what I’m going to do to wreck havoc on your story. But I need a
name, please.” Hence, the pre-built characters list.

What works for me is to name my secondary characters off the
bat, but leave some of the tertiaries for later. That way I can satisfy my
spontaneity gene and grab a name at random a few times through the book. Now
that I’m a little wiser, I only take it from the proscribed list of tertiary
character names, rather than inventing off the top of my head.

But what’s in a name? There needs to be more to make a
character come alive.

Some characters are so big and bold, they parade right out
of your mind onto the page with no effort. Some need to be coaxed a bit. For
the reluctant characters, there are a few absolutes that must be answered
before they get to show up in print. The first things I decide on are age, hair
color and eye color (subsequent to race), height, weight, and level of

While it’s generally easy to define a character by social
class and educational status, I have the joy of writing books that are based in
Nashville, Tennessee. This is a southern town, and there are many
colloquialisms here that can be misinterpreted by outsiders. Brilliant,
well-educated people here use terms that Yankees would deem dim-witted at best.
I try to be especially careful when I dip into that particular well. It’s a
unique issue that’s been written about by many more capable writers than I.
Suffice it to say you need to be aware if you’re writing regionally specific characters.

Back to building a character. Age, looks, race, education
and socio-economic status are first. Those are the main ingredients for me. Now
it’s on to the spices. I can’t say that I do the same thing for each character.
Some have more information on them than others. Some I know how they walk, what
they wear, how their hair is styled, whether they are straight or gay, who
their family is. Some I just have a mental picture of who they are. If they are
a one-timer, I try to be cognizant of their surroundings, so the character can
help me set the scene.

One of my writer buddies, J.B. Thompson, came up with a brilliant idea the
other day. She’s writing a book with an omniscient POV and several main
characters. The BMW’s (my critique group) were having trouble keeping all of
them straight, and we badgered her to do something about our inability to “get”
who was who. (Many times, POV problems are a result of not knowing your
characters as well as you should. If you know exactly how your character will
react in a certain situation, what they’ll say, how they’ll feel, your POV will
fall into place.)

Have you ever been sent an email survey by one of your
friends, the kind that has a huge list of questions that either you or said
friend must fill out? They ask detailed questions that are meant to show how
much you really know someone. My friend, in all her brilliant glory, decided to
fill out the survey as her characters. Since many of her characters are in
relationships or strong friendships, she allowed the characters themselves to
ask the questions of their friends and lovers. It gave her a stronger grasp of
who each character is and how they can be presented in the story to help us,
the readers, keep them straight. It worked wonderfully.

Another quick note on character building. One of the most
important questions I ask each of my characters is, “What do you mean to the
story?” A tertiary or one-time, one-scene character can steal the show. Let me
rephrase that. They should steal the show. I try to make my one-timers feel
special. Give them something important to do or say. You should never have a
character who doesn’t advance the story in one way or another.

Sometimes, even these tricks aren’t enough to really give
you a sense of who your characters are. Since we’re talking crime novels here,
let me point out that victimologies are vital to the success of your book. If
you don’t have a victim, you don’t have a crime, and you don’t have a book.
Making sure your victims are as well developed as your speaking characters
makes a big difference.

I tried something a little different in my last manuscript.
I had several girls who were killed. They were all in different states, and
they shared a physical resemblance. I was struggling with their deaths, mainly
because it’s so hard to kill someone in a book, no matter how gleefully we
might go about it. There was one that I felt so close to, it hurt me to kill
her. My protagonist was struggling with the issue, just as I was. I had him on
a plane, desolate, looking at the MISSING posters that accompanied each girl’s
disappearance. I envisioned him getting off the plane, going into his office
and tacking up the MISSING posters. Hmmm.

The next thing I knew, I was up to my, ahem, elbows, in
imaginary dead girls. There are a couple of glossy color magazines here in
town, so I went out and bought them, looked to the society pages, and cut out
pictures of girls that fit the killer’s profile. I then mocked up the MISSING
posters. Based on actual fliers from the National Center for Missing and Exploited
website, they each had a picture of the victim, all her particulars,
where she was last seen – all the information I needed to use to drive the
story and build the plot.

Since that worked so well for me, and my new manuscript has
the same kind of situation, I spent yesterday and today picking out my victims.
In the manuscript, these pictures go in a dossier for the antagonist to peruse.
They’ll go in a dossier in my files as well, so I can experience what my
character experiences as he looks at them. This has been one of the most
successful tricks I’ve learned. Dead characters deserve as much respect as
living characters. Bringing them to life makes it harder to kill them off, but
the goal is to create believable, sustainable characters for your readers.

I also make my setting, Nashville, a character unto itself.
I know people have received those constructive rejection letters that claim the
reader didn’t get a good “sense of place”. Make sure your setting is a
character just like your protagonists and antagonist, and you’ll never hear that

Get to know your characters, and they’ll never let you down.
I’d love to hear your quirks and ideas for making your characters sing. In the

Wine of the Week: Monte Antico Rosso – A Tuscan Sangiovese


6 thoughts on “Getting To Know You…

  1. Lorraine T.

    A Fine posting. A little heart-wrenching that your victims appearance, etc. are taken from actual missing children.As a mature woman, I read the obituaries, just to make sure I haven’t lost a friend or acquaintance. My writing is set at turn of last century, so the older the deceased, the better the name is for use for a character. Also, genealogical sites are a great source of popular names in an earlier age.

  2. J.B. Thompson

    Actually, Lorraine, J.T. uses the FORM of the missing children’s fliers, not the actual missing children. Her missing girls’ pictures were taken from the society pages of our local magazines.

    Excellent post, J.T.! (Especially since you referred to me as “brilliant”.) Great exercises for writers whose books are character-driven.

    =) JB

  3. Pari

    J.T.,This is a great primer on character development. My trick is to have conversations with the characters I need to know better. I sit with a pen and pad (I can’t do this particular creative endeavor on the computer) and interview them, just like I would for a feature article. The results often amaze me and they’re never the same.

    Of course, my family gets a bit worried every time I do it because I answer out loud and frequently in that character’s voice.

    Who said writers were sane?

  4. Cousin JTR


    Congratulations on your new blog! As I read through your character development, I compared several of my latest reads to realize each author’s unique character style. I can’t wait to use this knowledge as a new reading tool. As a reader, thank you for the critical reading lesson. As a cousin, you rock!


  5. Elaine

    Great post, J.T.! This really hits home.New character names are the one thing that can stop me cold! You know how it is-you’re writing along and all of a sudden a new character pops up and you’re all excited and then…then…you freeze. What to do? I get out the phone book. Works every time. Spammers are also a good source. I have a favorite spammer name – Faustino Goff. I’m dying to use it and probably will in the new book.

  6. JT Ellison

    I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one who has this happen. Thanks for letting me know I’m not crazy, guys. I appreciate it.And shout outs to the cuz — excellent analysis. Of course, I’d expect nothing less from you, a JT:)


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