A Question of Character

Silhouette of a woman
Who is this woman?

There’s much discussion among writer about how to craft characters and reader questions about how writers come up with their characters.

Are they based on real people?

I’m surprised at the number of writers who admit they are. I can’t imagine that. I mean, lately when I’m deep in the writing and I’m trying to “see” my character, I’ve tried casting them. What actors out there could I see playing the part in the movie? It’s fun and helps me give the character a needed swagger or attitude that might otherwise be lacking due to my own limited imagination. Not that I should admit that. Eventually I forget whom I cast and toddle along none the worse for it.

There’s only one character in Endurance that was inspired by a real person I knew, and that morphed so much that by the end, there was little left that wasn’t all mine. And while Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic adventure was the inspiration for the whole story, Lyn Randall is not Shackleton.

It frankly creeps me out to think about using real people in fiction. Sometimes authors will auction off names for a fundraiser. Have a character named for you in my next novel! I could never do that. The one book I read where a character was named for someone I knew, I couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t get past this character named for my friend but not like her (might have been worse if they’d been similar). It’s just a quirk I have. I don’t like reading novels of real people. Especially if they are still alive or only recently passed. That said, I’m looking forward to reading Geraldine Brooks’s Horse, which breaks a lot of my rules just mentioned. But when there is literally no record of a person, and no one left to correct the record, and it’s done with respect, I think it can work. We’ll see. It’s on my to-read list.

What about character worksheets?

I’ve examined multitudes of such sheets and guidance. Some prove helpful, some less so. While I don’t think eye color or height matters, once I’ve established a feature I write it down so I can check back later in case I forget or it actually matters. Same thing for family members, background, fears and phobias, etc.

What about diversity?

That’s a big one and where I admit I struggle. Not that I don’t want to write diverse characters or haven’t, but when does the line get crossed? I hope to describe my characters in such a way that anyone can see themselves in them, if possible. I want wide representation, but I’m a white, cis lesbian, so I’m not going to make my main character a Black, straight man or woman or anything. I just won’t. Let them write those stories. They’ll do a much better job. I know when I’ve read a story about a lesbian written by a straight woman, I can see the difference unless they do it a lot, and sometimes it’s noticeable only because the story is written for a straight audience. The “straight gaze.” I have written a trans character and blogged about that. I won’t dwell here.

My process for creating characters is a bit hard to pin down. It varies and has changed as I’ve changed as a writer. Sometimes I’ll hear a voice in my head, or a conversation between two people and that’s how they start. Other times, I have a situation, a “what if,” and look for someone to react to that and then I create her or him or nem from that.

Almost always now I interview my characters, especially when I’m trying to get inside them, into what makes them tick, or explode. I’ve done a fair amount of reporting in my past, so it comes naturally. And I love it when a character bites back.

An example: Very early in writing Endurance, I must have stumbled and gotten stuck. I created a document I still have literally called “Why cant I tell your story.” I asked my main character: Talk to me. Why can’t I tell your story? Know what she said? “You’re in my head. I’m not in yours. I’ve no idea.”

Then she told me what she liked and didn’t like about the story so far. But I didn’t need a critique and I told her so. I was hoping she’d tell the story and then I could just take it from there. Nope. “I don’t think I’m the problem,” she said.

I wondered if I should switch the POV to first person. What would that sound like, I asked her. “Wishbone in space,” she replied. Ugh. Besides, I really wanted to write close third person. She pointed out I was distracted, overwhelmed by a job that kept me awake at night instead of my characters, like they used to. What if I got my job sorted but still couldn’t write, I asked her. “Then you’ve got a bigger problem and I’ll look for another writer.”

For real. She threatened to take her story to another writer.

Eventually I found my groove, and when I needed to address her directly, was able to ask specific questions and she felt more comfortable telling me about herself.

Close call. 

My point, I guess, is that I prefer to create characters first, from the inside out, rather than find a real person to slot them into.


More about Endurance here, including buy links, of course. And just a gentle reminder that if you read a book and you like it, it’d be great if you posted a review somewhere. Especially if they are an indie or with a small publisher. Amazon, Goodreads, wherever. It helps authors’ egos, and that helps keep us writing. Thanks.

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