Friday, October 19, 2012

The Genesis of a Character

A couple of my colleagues here have been talking about characters. They are the building blocks of a story. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes may make for excitement, but it's how people react to such phenomena that we enjoy reading about. I know some authors who tear pictures of people out of magazines and post them near the computer to model for their characters. Others base characteristics of their creations on people they know.

For the most part, I create my characters from scratch, giving them traits and history that blends in with their role in the story. I literally build them as I go, adding to the characters as the story develops (I don't outline or plot the book in advance). When I began writing what became my first published mystery, Secret of the Scroll, book one of five in the Greg McKenzie series, the tale I had in mind required a retiree with investigative experience. Since I had an Air Force background, I decided to make him a former Office of Special Investigations agent. And since I had gotten involved in the new Scottish Society of Middle Tennessee, I gave him a Scottish name and heritage.

As I said, that has been the case with most of the characters who people my books. However, there has been one striking departure. It involved the first novel I wrote when I turned to fiction in earnest back in 1989. That time, also, I needed a man with investigative experience. But in this case he would need a background that would allow him to have worked in the past with a CIA officer. As I thought about it, I had the perfect fit in a former FBI agent I had first met during my days as editor of Nashville Magazine.

I discussed the man whose background formed the basis for my character Burke Hill on this blog last April in The Story Behind the Story. I didn't use his physical characteristics for Hill, and I did a bit of tweaking with his backstory, shifting the timeline and fictionalizing his activities following the dismissal by J. Edgar Hoover. A tale about Burke working with his old CIA buddy in Mexico isn't part of the story related by my ex-FBI friend, but he did tell me about a wild concoction produced by a lab at Dugway Proving Grounds.

Hill is the central figure in my trilogy of Post Cold War political thrillers, which had different literary agents when written in the early nineties and wound up in the manuscript pile on my office floor. The first, Beware the Jabberwock, was finally published this year and is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback. The second, The Poksu Conspiracy, will be in the Kindle Store by the end of this month.

Burke Hill's character is further fictionalized in the second book with the revelation of a son by his first marriage. But the basic story of his FBI career, starting with his job of delivering documents to Hoover's home, follows the account the agent told me in interviews.

The other characters in both books are figments of my imagination. Incidentally, I haven't mentioned the former agent's name, but if you're curious, take a look at the dedication in the print version.

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Morgan Mandel said...

Your Air Force background lends authenticity to your books. When creating a character, it's fun to take a real person, switch around the physical appearance and a few other details, and then pick one or two traits from that person to portray a book character.

Morgan Mandel

Chester Campbell said...

True, Morgan, but more often I just use my imagination to dream up whatever I need. Subliminally, I probably use characteristics of people I have observed over the years.