Two things prompted me to write this post. Gulf Coast Writer’s Association (GCWA) is a large organization of writers based in Fort Myers, Florida, which offers speakers, workshops, critique groups, and lots of networking with other writers and people associated with writing. They have been my lifeline to writing since I moved to Florida. The July meeting featured a workshop on creating characters.
The second item that prompted me to write about characters is a book that I purchased and read nearly thirty years ago—How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. I plucked this book off my shelf one recent night when I ran out of novels for my nightly bedtime reading. It’s as pertinent to fiction writing today as when I first read it. The first chapter is all about characters.
If I can’t get into the head and heart of the protagonist in a novel, I probably won’t finish the book. The story is even better if all the main characters (even the antagonist) are three dimensional. I want to understand where they are coming from. The same goes for writing. I need to get into the head of the character—become the character.
My first attempt at a novel (not published) was written from my point of view. I started by fictionalizing some past events in my life. But the character took over and told a completely different story with events that never happened to me and that I never imagined would. She became a different person than the author, with her own distinct personality.
The idea for my first published novel, The Janus Code, came from wanting to understand a man that I knew. He was a complex personality (bipolar) and I wanted to get inside his head. I started writing without any idea of the story, the plot, the premise, other characters… I let him write the story. Of course, he became a completely different person than the real person about whom I started writing.
With my second published book, Mangrove Madness, (I’d written a few in between) I started with an imaginary character not based upon any particular person. I did have a good sense of her personality. With this story I had a basic idea of a plot, but didn’t know the ending. Again, the character took over the writing and told the story. She decided the plot, the twists and turns, and the ending.
After Mangrove Madness, several people asked if I was writing a sequel. I decided to try, so first I wrote a biography of Ernie Pratt and character sketches of a few other players in the book. I found that I knew them quite well, even though they didn’t exist before I wrote the book.
I know that some writers create their characters in detail before they begin writing a story. Maybe it’s because of the way I write (in the zone) that allows my characters to create themselves. I’m not sure I understand it, but this is how it works for me.