Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How Do You Do?

by Janis Patterson
Every year or so in one or more of my writing groups there is a workshop on how to create characters, usually involving a great long interview sheet full of very detailed questions. Not just questions about height and eye color and place in the family hierarchy, but such minutiae as their favorite flavor of Jello, what they did on their sixth birthday and their maternal great-grandmother’s maiden name. One such questionnaire ran to six single-spaced pages!
Yet another class advises the writer to play reporter and interview the character.
This, say the teachers, allows you to dig closely into the character’s psyche so that you may know him/her intimately.
I say — well, what I say isn’t really suitable for such an august forum such as this. If you know the character so intimately, what keeps him fresh? Shouldn’t you constantly be discovering new things about him, just as the reader does? Familiarity indeed breeds contempt.
Still, there are those who believe in this method and by using it create wonderful characters.
I sort of envy them. They have control over their people. They can actually create their characters to fit their desires.
My characters just stomp in, look around and announce “Here I am.” I have little to nothing to say in the process, not even about their name. My current heroine and I battled for weeks over her name. I wanted it to be one thing, she another, and when I wrote with the name I wanted, she just stood there and became an unresponsive lump of pixels. Only when I gave in and changed her name to the one she wanted did the story come alive and start to work. We’re still wrestling about the exact circumstances of the ending.
Another example is Toby Applegate, the 7’3” nephew on the run from an unwanted basketball scholarship in my cozy mystery BEADED TO DEATH. He didn’t even exist in the original concept of the story. All innocent and unknowing I had my heroine Lilias walking through the dark to a remote woodsy cabin when suddenly the door opened and there was Toby. And he wouldn’t go away, either from Lilias or from me. Which, I suppose, is a good thing, since he has become one of the most beloved characters in my canon.
Another example of a strong-minded character not following my dictates is Flora Melkiot, the elderly and very wealthy widow who wormed her way into the position of co-sleuth in another cozy of mine, EXERCISE IS MURDER. She was in the armature of the story from the beginning, but not in her final form. I had sketched her in as the catalyst, but still most definitely a minor character.
There was never anything minor about Flora Melkiot! From the very first page, Flora was making her not inconsiderable will felt. She morphed almost instantly from a fussy old lady to a determined powerhouse who resembled nothing so much as the dark side of Miss Marple. She was supposed to be the reason for Rebecca’s presence in the exercise salon at the time of the murder and nothing more; she ended up almost taking over the entire book. In fact, the next book in the series is pretty much hers. As a woman raised strictly Southern, I was taught to respect the wishes of my elders, so I guess Flora is going to get her own series!
Now do I truly believe that, as some pundits have posited, that writing is nothing but a benign form of possession?
Not really.
Not completely.
I do believe that my subconscious mind is a powerful force, one that can create what it perceives as reality, and that if I let it run on a very loose leash it can create wonderful characters and situations.
 But – I’m also very careful never let loose of the leash!

          Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson. 


Lynn Cahoon said...

I'm so happy to hear another writer doesn't do the character bio's. I've always wondered how they do it before writing the story because the character changes with the plot. And I don't know what I don't know.

Great post.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Janis,

I think it's a good idea to live with a character for a while before you write a word about them. My books, my characters, always do flit around in my head long before I start to write.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I don't really do bios, but as the characters develop, I do keep notes on them. Because they reappear in other books in my series, I want to make sure I don't make any weird changes.

Kathleen Kaska said...

I never do character bios, either. I just let my characters talk to me. It's much more fun and they can be more creative than I can.

Morgan Mandel said...

I like my characters to surprise me. However, I do keep a list of what they look like so I won't forget. Surprise can only go so far, and I don't want my readers to be surprised by a forgetful author.

Morgan Mandel

Earl Staggs said...

I'm like you, Susan. First, I picture characters in my mind, then once I can see them, I push them on stage and let them do what the plot needs from them. I can usually tell when writers have done a complete bio of a character. They can't resist putting a lot of it in the story, even if it's not relevant. Also, like Morgan, I love it when a character surprises me.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I don't do bios either. I like to discover their characteristics along with my readers. But now that I've featured Dana and Sarah in four Logan & Cafferty mysteries, I know them pretty well.