Thursday, May 16, 2013

How do writers create their characters?

Elizabeth Zelvin

One of my blog brothers on SleuthSayers, Louis A. Willis, wrote a post in which he wondered “how you give each character a personality that distinguishes him or her from other characters, even minor ones.” He wondered if “in order to create him or her, to give them personalities, including the various emotions each must have to be believable,” the writer has to build or rather become each character. His bemusement sparked a number of interesting comments from some of our blogmates.

Fran Rizer said, “When characters, I generally need to let them float around in my mind for several days to become real enough to me for their representation to seem right in the writing.” Fran also mentioned how easily she writes her recurring series characters, because she already knows them well.

R.T. Lawton, who has a background in undercover law enforcement, said, “I've learned to compartmentalize some of my brain, therefore writing different characters and their emotions and actions may come a little easier for me. Many times, in the grey wolf hours of early morning when my mind is not yet fully awake, it will dream up an interesting conflict situation which requires a certain type of character. This then also requires certain other characters as antagonists (or protagonists depending upon the situation). At that point, I usually reach back into the past, mostly for criminals and street people I've run across and how they would act/react to that scene. Sometimes these story characters are a composite of several real people, but even so they get bent to fit the story.”

Leigh Lundin said, “I like getting into the head of characters...becoming a character for a little while.” Herschel Cozine, who sometimes guest blogs on SleuthSayers, agreed, particularly with respect to writing a character whose basic profile differs from the writer’s, eg man writing woman, straight writing gay, white writing black etc. He said, “Become the character, no matter how much you may know about his/her wants and needs. There are certain universalities that allow you to do this.”

Dixon Hill used that discussion as a jumping off point in a later post, in which he said:

(1) My writing seems to function best when plot grows organically, through character interaction.

(2) When characters refuse to drive the plotline where I desire, I tend to let the characters carry the day -- unless this pushes the plot into dimensions unfit for the story as I’ve come to perceive it.

(3) If things get too far out of control, I try to plant something farther forward in the narrative, which I hope will lead one of the characters to alter behavior in a way designed to organically correct the plot growth in the desired direction.

He then admitted that all of the above was only half the true description of how he writes. “The second part of my true answer,” he said, “is: I daydream.”

My own contribution to the discussion was this:

For me, it's a matter neither of "building" nor "becoming" my characters, including my two male series protagonists, a recovering alcoholic in present-day New York and a young marrano sailor with Columbus. The voice comes from that creative well of inspiration some call the muse and others the unconscious, and the character starts talking in my head. I simply write down what he or she says and delete anything he or she wouldn't say. One of the reviewer comments I'm most proud of was when Steve Steinbock referred to me in EQMM as a "female writer who has mastered the male voice." As the classic line from the movie Shakespeare in Love puts it: It's a mystery!

I’ve had the opportunity to take a close look at my series character lately in the course of revising the three novels for new e-editions. The process has confirmed my sense that for me, the creation of character is intuitive and organic. It’s very much a matter of voice, especially with recurring characters. I’ve lived with Bruce, Barbara, and Jimmy for a long time, and I have a strong gut feeling about what each of them would or would not say or do. I’ve also seen how much they have developed over the period in which I’ve kept returning to them (three novels, four short stories, and a novella), each time with a little more mastery of the fiction writer’s craft.

Apart from the mystery plot and how the characters drive each story, the friendship between Bruce and his two sidekicks is a crucial element in the series. In a scene near the end of Death Will Help You Leave Him, Barbara and Jimmy are trying to comfort Bruce, who has just suffered a devastating loss.

“Why don’t you go home and get some sleep?” Jimmy said. “Come over in the morning.”

“We’ll have bagels and lox,” Barbara said.

“And maybe take in a meeting,” Jimmy said.

Barbara being Barbara and Jimmy being Jimmy—now, that did make me feel better.

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