Friday, March 6, 2009

Making Characters Come to Life by Chester Campbell

I think we all agree that characters are chief ingredients that make our mysteries come to life. “Cardboard characters,” as the terms implies, leave stories flat. I thought it might be instructive to peel away the layers and see how a protagonist comes into being.

The person in question is Gregory McKenzie, the lead character in four Greg McKenzie Mysteries. When I came up with the idea for Secret of the Scroll, I wanted a man who would do anything to save his wife from a murderous group of terrorists. I preferred someone with investigative experience who could track down hostage-takers without taxing the reader’s credibility. Since I had an Air Force background, I decided a retired Office of Special Investigations agent would be an interesting departure from other protags.

I wrote two-and-a-half single-spaced pages of background for Greg, which also included basic information on his wife, Jill. I put his age at sixty-five, hers a few years younger. One of my intentions was to show retired seniors as the competent individuals that I know them to be. I was tired of reading blundering caricatures of my age group.

Re-reading my notes from ten years ago, I found a lot of information that has never come out in the books. I also noted more than a few incidents that appeared in the book originally, but were dropped after being axed by my editor. I may find a place to use some of them eventually.

To make him sort of Joe Average, I set Greg’s birth in St. Louis. For a good Scottish background (after all, I am a Campbell), I made his father a burly, garrulous, red-faced Scotsman who emigrated at age fifteen and became a master brewer for Anhauser-Busch. His mother also contributed some Highland blood from her side of the family, as did my own.

Greg retired as a lieutenant colonel, held down in the ranks by his penchant for stepping on as many toes as necessary while pursuing the truth in criminal investigations. He angered a brigadier general early in his OSI career who came back later as a three-star general to stop him in his tracks. His doggedness is a characteristic that hasn’t changed over four novels.

I have added more background to the character as different stories came along. One involved his family’s military history. This is how Greg described it in a paragraph from the second book in the series, Designed to Kill:

When the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders were first mustered in 1794 at Stirling Castle, north of Glasgow, there were sixteen McKenzies on the roster, one of them an ancestor of mine. After the unit was re-designated the 91st, other McKenzies followed him on down to 1881 when the 91st was merged with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders to form the regiment my grandfather fought with in the Boer War and World War I. My dad, Rob McKenzie, was a little less combative, serving as a U.S. Army cook in World War II.

One of Greg’s little idiosyncrasies, seemingly unlikely for a former Air Force officer, is his fear of flying. This despite the fact that his wife, Jill, is a licensed commercial pilot who owns a Cessna 172. It makes for interesting scenes when they need to fly somewhere on a case as private investigators, which they become in books three and four.

Family backgrounds, personal foibles, and other intriguing aspects of character help mold our protagonists and antagonists into real people for the reader. And our protags become our personal friends as well. It makes life at the keyboard more interesting.

Chester Campbell’s website
His Mystery Mania blog

9 comments:

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Amen, Chester! I'm a big advocate of designing the character in detail long before the story is written.

L. Diane Wolfe
www.circleoffriendsbooks.blogspot.com
www.spunkonastick.net
www.thecircleoffriends.net

Chester Campbell said...

Right, Diane. But as the story goes along, new insights into a character are constantly sneaking in.

Anne Carter said...

And this is exactly why it's sometimes so hard to finish writing a book!

Great post, lots of good insight.

Anne
http://beacon-street.blogspot.com

Jean Henry Mead said...

Very good post, Chester. I'm also of good Scottish stock and have enjoyed your Greg McKenzie series!

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Anne and Jean. Our grandson has had a make-believe friend for years and talks frequently about what he does. I guess that's what we do as writers, only on a little more sophisticated level.

Misa Ramirez said...

I absolutely agree that quirks and family and supporting characters make our characters come alive. Heroes and heroines don't exist in a vacuum; the family, et al, help create the world.

I love my time at the keyboard for the very reasons you stated...my characters are 'real' to me, too!

Morgan Mandel said...

I love the concept of a 65 year old character not acting decrepit, especially since I'm now 60. Today's seniors seem a lot more active than yesterday's, at least it seems that way to me from my vantage point.

Morgan Mandel
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

Dana Fredsti said...

I'm always intrigued and amazed by writers who put such thought into their character backgrounds before they even start the novel. I don't consider myself a lazy writer, but I'll get the basic idea for a character (sometimes based on a real person or just a snippet of dialogue overheard) and then they develop as I write. I'm a crappy outliner too.

Dana Fredsti said...

I'm always intrigued and amazed by writers who put such thought into their character backgrounds before they even start the novel. I don't consider myself a lazy writer, but I'll get the basic idea for a character (sometimes based on a real person or just a snippet of dialogue overheard) and then they develop as I write. I'm a crappy outliner too.