Creating Characters for Your Stories

Creating minor characters in short stories and novels is often a mix of intuition and expedient puzzle construction. The plot tells you what you need the person to do whether s/he’s a maid or a butler or a car salesman, your intuition tells you about the character’s demeanor, and applying our jigsaw puzzle skills leads you to the traits (and backup research) to make the character real within the scope of his/her role.

Obviously, a character with a recurring presence throughout the novel needs more substance than a bartender who doesn’t even have a line of dialogue. It’s important, though, not to box yourself in because you may need that character later–that is s/he may slowly get a larger role in a novel or its sequels and/or may need to become more than s/he appeared to be when the reader first met them.

For example, my character Pollyanna appeared more or less as a walk-on character in book 3 (Lena) of the Florida Folk Magic Series, was enjoyable to work with as a writer, and also was a hit with readers. So, she became the main character in book 4 (Fate’s Arrows). Each time she appeared, I added depth to the character making sure the new information about her didn’t conflict with what I’d said before.

Wikipedia photo

We learned over time that she was a marine nurse at MASH units in Korea and Okinawa. We learned that when marines took karate courses in Okinawa (where Shotokan karate was developed) Pollyanna tagged along and–to the surprise of the men–became quite good at it. I used legitimate Shotokan strikes in Fate’s Arrows and that meant watching a lot of video instruction about doing them correctly.

This is one example of taking a character and adding skills or traits that weren’t necessary when s/he first appeared. In Pollyanna’s case, she was always an enigma to those who knew her, an approach to life that would later fit with her CIA association. Had she been a conservationist, woodcraft skills that weren’t required in her first scene could have been added in subsequent stories because the stage would have been set for her to develop in that way. You could say the same for many avocations or careers, as long as you didn’t box yourself in when the character first walked into the story.

Or, if you plan everything, then you might have created that walk-on character one way or another, knowing that you were going to use him or her in multiple sequels. That’s too tedious for me, but a lot of writers like getting everything nailed down before they begin writing.

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Now, in my novel-in-progress, Pollyanna is again the main character and I am building her style and way of life by introducing the reader to the concepts behind Karate that would have been overkill in her first or second appearance. She has a Zen approach to life. That fits with Karate. So now I can add the concept of Bushido (a moral code) as well as the general precepts of Shotokan developed by Gichin Funakoshi that stress a unity of mind and body. That Pollyanna adheres to these approaches to life, not only explains why she does what she does, but makes her come across as a character of a lot of depth.

Had she been a conservationist, I might now be adding in such concepts as a forest as a unit rather than isolated trees and how that impacts the environment, forest management, and the careful use of fire. I probably would have followed the concepts and researchers behind Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory and made them (like Bushido in Karate) an important philosophy of the character.

Needless to say, every “walk-on character won’t end up becoming the protagonist in subsequent novels.  But it’s fun when this happens because, for the author, they are rather like a child who likes playing with blocks who ends up becoming an architect with, say, the viewpoint of (possibly) Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie Style and its influences from the natural world. Such influences might even become a part of the character’s developing persona.

When characters are involved, it’s easy for an author to feel like a parent.

Malcolm

My Vietnam War novel “At Sea” is free on Kindle through June 5. It is loosely based on my experiences aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. 

Writing Tip: Use Humor as Part of Your Character Development

We remember some friends because they tell lame jokes and other friends because they’re guilty of non-stop puns. Perhaps these traits have little or nothing to do with these folks’ jobs, causes, abilities as parents, or the heroic deeds they may perform. Yet, they are one of the ways we know them.

A sense of humor, or the inadvertent habit of doing funny or odd things, can also help readers get to know your characters in a novel or short story.

For example, in my contemporary fantasy novel The Sun Singer, my fiery red-headed character Cinnabar’s favorite phrase is “Holy Bear Puke” and the blustery blacksmith in charge of weapons constantly misuses everyday words. Such traits become “signature traits,” rather like the theme songs that accompany characters in movies. They not only make the characters three-dimensional, but are like comfort food to readers whenever the humor repeats itself randomly through a story.

I thought of the beauty of humor—as a character trait and as a way of suddenly lightening up the tone of a fast-paced or frightening story—when I found veteran author Lisa Goldstein using it in her fantasy The Uncertain Places to show us “something extra” about protagonist Will Taylor and his long-time friend Ben Avery.

As with many people who’ve known each other since childhood, they’ve developed  their own brand of wild-and-crazy repartee. The humor is part of who they are, and Goldstein uses it to good advantage in developing these characters.

For example, Goldstein drops this old Will-and-Ben riff into a dinner-table conversation:

“Will and I are thinking about writing a movie,”  Ben said. “It’s called ‘Theater Closed for Repairs.'”

We’d told this joke before, of course. It was one of the routines we did, our two-man band. People either got it or told us we were idiots. This time Livvy and Maddie laughed, though Mrs. Feierabend looked a little confused.

I like this because it defines everyone at the table. It’s not only typical Will and Ben, but includes the kinds of reactions the reader is coming to expect from Livvy, Maddie, and their mother. Also, Goldstein doesn’t belabor the joke. Some readers won’t get it. Some will smile and move on. Others (like me) will stop and ponder the beauty of the words THEATER CLOSED FOR REPAIRS on a marquee while wondering about the reactions of passersby.

Set in 1971, The Uncertain Places makes frequent counter-culture references. Maddie, for example mentions marching in a protest parade with a group called the Young Socialist Alliance, leading to this exchange with Will:

“Wait a minute,” I said.”You’re a Trotskyite!”

“Trotskyist,” Maddie said. “Yeah, what about it?”

I knew she had radical politics, but I’d had no idea. To me, Trotskyists were like Cubs fans—their team was never going to win, but you had to admiore their loyalty.

Since my mother was a Cubs fan, I have to smile at this, not to mention knowing full well what her (and any other Cubs fan’s) reaction to such a comment would be. Will and Maddie’s conversation occurs on page 34 of the book, but even this early in the story, everything about it is so typical of both Will and Maddie, that I nod as I read it, and think, “Yes, that’s the kind of thing Maddie would say and the kind of thing Will would think—but leave unsaid.”

I’m getting to know and care about the characters of the book, partly because the there are a lot of strange things going on in the Feierabend household and Will, with some help from Ben, is trying to figure out the mystery. The humor doesn’t move the plot forward, but it is a wonderful part of the author’s character development.

A Word of  Caution

As you consider using a bit of humor to develop the characters in your stories, a word of caution. The humor needs to fit the character. It needs to be just what the reader would expect from him or her. Mrs. Feierabend never would come up with the THEATER CLOSED FOR REPAIRS gag any more than she would burst forth with a string old genie jokes or flirty stories filled with sexual innendos. She’s not that kind of person.

My thought is: make the humor fit and don’t run it into the ground turning it into the kind of flaw in the story reviewers like to point out. A quick laugh, and then get on with the plot.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels from Vanilla Heart Publishing, including the recently release contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”