Tag Archives: creating characters

Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!

Creating Character and Inclusionary Writing

A writer faces the challenge of creating memorable, authentic characters every time she starts a new story or novel. Debates abound about how much physical description to include, from whose point of view, and the advantages of not including physical description which gives the reader’s imagination the task. Lynn Capehart, in her article for the October 2010 The Writer, “The importance of Inclusionary Writing,” reveals how some white writers inadvertently support racism by the way they describe non-white characters.

Capehart points out that white writers tend to label non-white characters, allowing the labels to serve as physical description by calling to mind a stereotype that goes with the label. In contrast, they describe white characters carefully and with nuance. What Capehart would like to see in all writing is the same kind of care and nuance used in describing all characters, white and non-white.  “Whether characters are constructed with more or less detail should be a function of their worth and weight on the page, not race,” Capehart wrote. I agree, and this needs to be applied to all writers, not only white writers.

Unfortunately, racism continues to live in American society despite progress in civil rights, the fight for equality and acceptance over the last 50 years, and our current President. Women also continue to endure sexism in American society despite progress in their fight for equality and acceptance as individuals. Society influences the writers who live in it, so I think American writers need to be especially vigilant. Fictional characters need to be seen as individual human beings by readers, and it is the challenge of writers to create them as unique individuals.

In imagining the world of the summer of 2048 for Perceval, I originally saw a dystopian America as having reverted back to racist ways. The primary location of the novel is Vienna, Austria, which in my experience has always been an international city, cosmopolitan, but also with a history of anti-Semitism. I had thought that I’d created my characters with care and as unique individuals until I read Capehart’s article. Now I want to read through the novel and pay special attention to the way I describe or don’t describe my characters.

The point of view of a character reveals his character to the reader.  Most of the novel is third person with a focus on Evan Quinn, the main character. Showing a character’s beliefs and attitudes should not necessarily be confused with what the writer believes. The trick is to see the character as an individual with his own beliefs and attitudes separate from the writer, and for the writer also to not impose his beliefs and attitudes on him. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of character creation and takes time and many, many drafts to master. Evan has been influenced by American society from his birth in 2013 until the reader meets him in the novel. His parents influenced him, his friends, teachers, and the circumstances of his life influenced him.  How he thinks and behaves reflects all these influences as well as his desires and needs and his life experiences. So, creating a character is not only the character’s physical appearance, but also his thinking, his actions, his experiences and knowledge.

Recently, a prologue for Perceval came to me unbidden and with such force and vivid completeness in my mind, I realized that my imagination was signaling me that we needed to do another rewrite of the novel. I plan to expand the title, add the prologue and then review each chapter with an eye to character creation and description, as well as location and time. My writing work and my reading the last three years has added to my knowledge and experience, which I can now use in my work on the Perceval series.….



The Redhead

On a recent day just before rush hour, I waited at a bus stop with two large bags of groceries.  The wind blustered cold, and the overcast sky threatened to let go of its load of snow on the world around me.  A city bus pulled up.  Through the windows I could see people standing in the center aisle, all the seats were taken — an unusual occurrence before rush hour.  I boarded, hefting my full grocery bags up to the floor near the driver.  As I paid, a man in the front stood and offered me his seat.  To get the bags out of the way so people wouldn’t trip over them (or destroy the eggs in the carton on top of one), I set them on the seat and stood, holding onto the bar above and bracing my knees against the seat. 

Six or seven people crammed in around me.  I looked toward the back.  Usually, those standing in the aisle will move farther toward the back when people board.  No one moved.  Blocking them at the very end of their line stood the Redhead.

Her red hair flipped up at her shoulders and a swatch of it fell diagonally across her forehead connecting with one side of her black thick-framed eyeglasses at a 45-degree angle.  The lips of her small mouth pursed in determination.  She stared straight ahead.  She looked like she’d stepped directly out of the 1950’s.  

No one said anything.  The bus moved forward.  I stared at the Redhead, wondering what she was thinking.  She looked to be in her late-20’s, not particularly pretty but not homely either.  How could she be oblivious to the situation?  Open space yawned behind her.  Did she think to move back was beneath her?  Her expression could also be interpreted as haughty.  It definitely said, “don’t bother me.”  Angry?  Who was this young woman?  Where had she boarded the bus? 

I began to spin a backstory for her in my mind.  I decided that she must be affluent, forced to ride the bus because her car was being repaired.  I decided her facial expression meant anger, not determination, and it had erected an invisible wall around her.  I toyed with the idea that she had a mental illness and might suddenly begin screaming or something equally dramatic, but suddenly, I was no longer curious about her.  Nothing about her appearance or the situation compelled my imagination to play anymore.

This is one way characters can arrive and depart my life and mind.  Nothing is ever completely discarded from these little mind games.  Details can stick in my mind and pop up months, even years, later to become a part of a character that decided to stay with me for a while and share his or her story….