Time for a new Burning Question about writing and publishing. Check in often to see how we Liars respond. To see past answers to other Burning Questions, click on our For Writers page. And if you would like to pose a Burning Question for our group of authors to ponder and post about, just shoot us an email or post a comment, and we’ll be happy to consider it!
Burning Question #11: How do you create your characters?
Merry Jones kicks this one off:
Hmm. Once I have a plot idea, I put out a mental job description and wait for characters to apply. Let’s say I know that I need a new main character, a romantic interest and a best friend. And, of course, an obstructionist evil-doer.
Those spots are available in the plot. Before accepting applications, I have to narrow the field, outline the specifics. Decide who’s male or female. The approximate ages. Basic interests and personality types. I might decide if they are attractive. Athletic. Phobic. Funny. Fanatic. What kind of childhoods they had. But then, I stop and wait.
Applications begin to pour in—Characters wanting to be written about. They clamor and compete, telling me not just their ages and genders, but also what their favorite movies, foods, colors would be. Whether or not they’d like cats, opera, football. If they’d get migraines or snore or lisp or bite their nails, fear the dentist or the dark or spiders or heights.
Obviously, it isn’t necessary to know everything about a character, much less put everything I know into the manuscript. But I think that writers should know more about characters than we actually write, just as we know more about our friends and neighbors than we actually say. By knowing them fully, we’re more likely to treat them as well-rounded, three-dimensional characters.
Of course, not every one who applies gets a place in a given book. Characters show up and hang around, pestering for even a few pages. I have to be selective, think about the plot and choose who’d be the best fit. Should I pick a librarian? A landscaper? A bartender? A dog-walker?
And then, having selected a character, I have to live with him/her for a while.
Just as we don’t start out married to someone or being best friends, we don’t start out on intimate terms with our characters—relationships have to build. I try not to rush characters into situations and dialog, but to wait until they develop and reveal themselves, allowing time for our relationships to grow and trust to build. Eventually, she’ll let me know why she walks dogs. What she does when she isn’t walking them. Where she lives. What she eats for breakfast. Who her friends, her family are. Whether she snores or lisps or bites her nails.
But not–No not ever where she comes from.
If I were to ask her, she’d no doubt make up some acceptable answer—Like Detroit or Cincinnati.
But she and I both know better; she comes from someplace else–that mysterious place of dreams, make-believe and melodies. Where that is, I don’t think I want to know.
Merry Jones is the author of the Zoe Hayes mystery series (The Nanny Murders, The River Killings, The Deadly Neighbors, and The Borrowed and Blue Murders), humor books (including I Love Him, But… and If She Weren’t My Best Friend, I’d Kill Her) and nonfiction (including Birthmothers, Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories).