There is the old adage, ‘write what you know’, and it certainly does help for a writer to have lived long, loved and hated, had several peaks and valleys during the journey, been ‘around the block’ several times and experienced lots of different situations.
I read that Hemingway would seek out wars and hire on as a mercenary so he could experience the intensity of real life and death battle. I’ve never been in a war, but part of my writing arsenal is having had a rather widely varied and experiential life background. From a young Hippie Rock and Roll travelling musician, to nightclub entertainer, to a formally trained Zen student, to carpenter, to small business owner, to network marketer, to sales and sales training, to skilled trades instructor and adult education teacher, to public speaker and motivational coach, to mention some.
I came from a small, lily-white northern Michigan town, but have during my adult life hung out in metropolitan cities, been down in the ghettos and made friends there, got to know and make friends with people of all races, ethnic and religious backgrounds. And I have had first hand experience with serious narcotics addiction, complete with considerable interaction with underworld characters: hookers, drug dealers, hustlers, etc. So it’s easy for me to draw from all the different types of people I have known to put composite characters together that are going to feel real to the reader because they are based on actual people I’ve known. Not usually just one person, but piece this from that one with that from another—that sort of thing.
But a writer does not have to have all that much first hand life experience to create real and distinctive characters. You can write people that you never have ‘known’. You just have to be a fastidious observer, a people watcher at all times, a perpetual, insatiable sponge of information gathering. Go sit in the mall and watch people. If you are from a small town, go to big cities and hang around downtown observing people. And visa versa if you’re from the big city and have not experienced small town living. Interview crooks, ex-cons of all types of crimes, set appointments with pastors, doctors, nurses, pilots, war vets, etc., and build up a vicarious life experience background from which to draw on when creating characters.
Also important is making sure you keep your ‘self’ out of your characters. Unless you want to speak through a character who is going to represent you and your messages, and that is perfectly fine—just keep it to one—you should guard against having your characters talk and act like you do. As an editor I see this all the time from novice writers. There might be anywhere from three to seven main and supporting characters and all of them use the same pet phrases—an obvious giveaway that the author uses those phrases. Same goes for mannerisms, emotional reactions, everything. Create one-of-a-kind characters, each with his or her own mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, ethical and moral, sexual persuasion, whatever, makeup.
Here are a couple things that can help. One, keep a character journal. For every main and supporting character, have a list of all their characteristics, including special notes to yourself as you write and develop them. Here’s a sample from my Beware the Devil’s Hug character journal-
Full name: Destiny Marie Jackson – Nickname, “Cocoa”
Age: Twenty nine
Height: 5’ 7”
Weight: 110 lb
Race: African American
Skin tone: Creamy coffee when healthy, ashy when book opens and she is on heroin
Hair: Unkempt medium sized Afro
Body type: Slender, medium sized perky breasts, long legged
Sexual persuasion: strongly sexed heterosexual, and totally not satisfied sexually in spite of all the sex she’s having.
Voice tone: Raspy alto
Speech mannerisms: ghetto slang talker, swears a lot in opening chapters. As story unfolds she cleans up her language and expands her vocabulary.
Pet phrases: hecky; good googely moogely; okey dokey
Distinguishing features: large scar under her chin. Tramp stamp tattoo of a Harley Davidson logo
Role in story and relationship to other characters: Secondary main character, falls in love with and marries The Old Man. Becomes best friends with Angel, Christian Wilson’s fiancé.
Religion/spiritual path: Agnostic at first, then Christian
Notes: Abused sexually by her father as an early teenager. She ran away from home at 16, never finished high school. Her parents live off Fenkel Street, just west of Livernois. She now lives on eight mile. Likes pizza, hip-hop, Mountain Dew, not a heavy alcohol drinker, favorite books are romance novels. Detroit Pistons fan.
I use the same list for all my characters. I might not have all the categories filled in as I start writing, but I go to the journal and fill in the blanks as they are created. I can then refer to the journal as I write if I forget any minute detail about the character, thus ensuring consistency in the story with respect to how this person looks, speaks, dresses, acts, reacts, and so forth.
And here’s another technique I’ve recently started using: before you write your book, interview your main characters. Just as if they were sitting in the room with you, ask them questions like …
· What is your favorite food? (ask color, music, kinds of books, movies, hobbies and interests, etc)
· What are your core spiritual beliefs?
· If you were in a situation where you could help someone—a total stranger in desperate need—but it meant you had to make a personal sacrifice to do so, what would you do?
· What was your upbringing, your family situation like?
· What do you hate the most in life?
· What do your fear most?
· What turns you on, makes you happy?
· In a relationship, what do you want to get out of it … be it a sexual, life partner, friendship, spiritual, or business relationship?
You get the idea. Be creative, and adjust the kinds of questions you ask your characters according to the genre you are writing in.
So there are some thoughts, ideas, and a couple tried and true techniques for developing unique, believable, realistic and consistent characters in your fictions. Use them and let me know how they work for you in future class sessions.
Marvin D Wilson, multi-published author and editor with All Things That Matter Press, using the pen name “Professor Old Silly,” posts writing tutorials on his blog each Tuesday. The above tutorial is a re-post from the archives of his blog at: http://theoldsilly.com.