So many individuals that a novel is something that is produced by sitting before a typewriter, or laptop these days, and it just pours forth from the writer’s brain. Presto, Change O, the novel happens. There are writers like Steven King who will kick about the “What If” ideas. What if there was the really big dog, like a Saint Bernard, and he became possessed of the devil or some demon, and that dog could terrorize you and your family, and he always knew what you were thinkings, and he always anticipated what you would do next, and, and, and…. Then there are those writers who start with some small idea and work it into a frenzy and outline it in great detail down to each comma and semicolon. Well, truth is, you are either a writer bent on discovery and a writer who plans his work in great detail. Most of us tend to be centered around one of those two poles or working methods. So I have been doing a little planning for my next attempt. I am not one who loves detailed planning, but I do need a map of the area when I try to write. After all, one has to have some sense of direction when one undertakes a journey. Some people need detailed maps to navigate a strange city or foreign land. I just need some general reference points and then I have a fair idea of where I am and where I’m headed. So I spent a number of days simply thinking what I want to say in my novel. What is the story I will tell and what is its point. For that I take a seven or nine millimeter lead mechanical pencil, I like the thicker lead because it doesn’t break like a five millimeter lead does. It is also easier to see. I used to take notes in college using 5 millimeter lead pencils or very fine Pilot pens since I tend to write very small. I can still write two lines in the space where most people can only write one. Now that I have generated some of the notes I need, there are still many other notes to be made, such as names, some history of the time are area, culture, and so forth, I can turn my attention to creating characters.
My wife doesn’t really understand creating characters. She has read what some authors have said about their characters and how they were modeled on specific people. That is all well and good if you are that much of a social gadfly. But that means you took a small notebook with you and sat around in bars, parties, dinners, train stations, and what not, observing people and writing down what you were able to observe. I suppose if one attends enough dinner parties and sees the usual crowd then one may take one’s characters from real individuals. But that is a dangerous practice as Somerset Maugham found after his trips to the far east and south seas when he publish a collection of short stories that hit far too close to home for those people who shared their homes, their whiskey, and their personal gossip. No, one needs to find the story first, find those reasons why the story must be written. Every story has a point, even the slightest bit or morality that makes the story go from merely relating some facts to relating some feelings, both personal and social. For that purpose, no plain John Doe will do. Good novels are never filled with plain John Does. Harry Potter is not a plain John Doe. He starts out as an orphan living in a foster home. That is not a plain John Doe. Creating a character is like interviewing people to come and act in your novel. The difference is that you are really creating these people through an interviewing process. Scott M. Peck wrote several books on creating characters. What it all boils down to is creating detailed biographies of your characters.
But in deciding what sort of character you need you must consider the story and the points you want to convey. Is your hero a tall Nordic blue-eyed blonde with bulging muscles? That man will look out of place in many areas of the world. You better have a good reason to pick him. Should the character blend in with the population or stand out? Consider Jason Borne. Does he stand out from the crowd? Does Rambo look like he fits in anywhere? Certainly Mr T would stand out in the Alps of Switzerland. An American Black man stands out in most of the countries in Africa. The way he dresses, how he holds himself, how he talks, it all screams, “American”. But if I were going to write a story about some action in Nigeria or another country with a very high black population, using a Black American would make the story more interesting. After all, you hero must stand out in some way. How did Harry Potter stand out? He went from wimp to contender.
Even border guards that we see only once need some short biography. It helps with their physical descriptions, their actions. In one of Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories his two main characters have a run in with a Fascist Italian border guard. The looks, the stature or lack of it, the overt physical actions of that guard supply us with more than a simple character created to harass our heros. Fitzgerald uses this individual to represent the face of Fascism in Italy. A character is created for a reason, to wear the story like a suit of clothes, and it it doesn’t fit then the story doesn’t work. Female characters are a bit more difficult for male authors for the simply fact that women are more adept, in general, at reading men that men, in general, are at reading women. On the other hand we know that someone who is an engineer is not likely to act in the same ways as sociologist or artist. These activities tend to have different proclivities and temperaments. I have yet to meet an artist who is very problem-solving oriented. Engineers and artists may both be creative but in very distinct ways. Seldom does the artist see a black canvas as a problem to be solved. Pattern recognition is a major factor of thinking, but how we see patterns is a factor of our past and present environments and learnings. How does the good guy tell the bad guys from the rest of the community if the bad guys don’t wear uniforms and numbers? Like that old rock and roll song from the mid sixties, if you really want to know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss. Is it in his eyes, oh no, you’ll be deceived, is it in his clothes, girl you’re not listening to me. Refrain. In creating characters for our story we are actually interviewing ourselves. We ask the questions and provide the answers, What should he or she look like and how should they act? What are their beliefs (which guide their actions or reactions), how well do they believe in their principles, their religion, their own abilities, in love? That old saw, as a man thinketh….yes so a man tends to do, to be, to believe.
So now, since I will need a number of different characters from different cultures I will need to research personal and family names of both genders. I will create a sheet of paper with two columns, one for personal or first names, and one for family names. I may even create column of nick names. This is for each cultural or social group. Remember, a name helps define who you are. Would you expect any boy named Percy to be heavyweight boxing champion? Would Prudence be a nymphomaniac? They could, but it is not likely. Names are important. Not every hero should be John or Bill. Not every femme fatale should be Natasha or Sasha or Raven. On the other hand, Desean sounds more like a drug user or thief. Pay attention to the news and the names of criminals. Unless I am writing about some popular theme that involves hip hop or rap or whatever, most of which is beyond my understanding and experience, I will stick to the less popular names of those genres. No, the names must match, to some extend, the generation one is writing about. Stick with the ordinary names unless there is a purpose for something more exotic.
When it comes to the physical characteristics avoid the obvious. Granite jawed, chiseled features, supple lips, pert breasts, all the usual purple prose of bad writing. Look though magazines that feature ordinary people. You can find these in libraries and doctor’s offices and other waiting rooms. Pick up a bunch at magazine racks and then bring them home. Cut out faces and full photos, then try to describe what your see. And grab a couple of People magazines as well for the exceptional individuals you may need. Create a file of characters this way. Get some decoration and design magazines so you can create rooms and houses that you may want to use for description. Include travel magazine for foreign locations. What you want is not complete descriptions but to capture in a few words or a couple of sentences at the most brief pictures or pertinent descriptions that instead of get in the way of the story. Remember that where people live, how they live, what they decorate their personal spaces with helps to describe them to the reader.