by Valerie Davisson
It being November, I’m feeling thankful to my father for taking that government job that yanked us out of small-town America, threw us across the Atlantic Ocean, and into a life of ever-changing faces and places.
Munich, Germany. Octoberfest.
6-years old, wearing red lederhosen, holding a pretzel bigger than I was. Standing in the bright, fall sunshine, peering into a dark hall filled with loud, ruddy-cheeked men, crowded along rows of wooden tables. I wrinkled my nose at the sour smell coming at me from the open tent-flaps. Beer steins raised, the men sang lustily about things I didn’t understand, in a language I didn’t know.
Livorno, Italy. Anna.
I was often in trouble with Anna for something, usually for getting in her way when she was cooking. But everything she did was so fascinating, and done in 3-inch, black heels and a tight skirt. Tucked in blouse. Every day. Jet-black hair. First, she poured flour directly onto the marble countertop, made a small, crater in the middle. (The first time she did this, I knew my mother would be appalled – how unsanitary not to use a bowl!) Next, with one-handed ease, she cracked two eggs in there, tossed in a pinch of salt, then whipped them up with two fingers before deftly kneading the tender pasta she then made into mouth-watering lasagna. All without getting a speck of flour on her black skirt. Magic.
Yokohama, Japan. Dancing lessons.
Just putting on the silky kimono made me feel graceful. Big, thick fan that snapped open and shut. At least it did when my instructors did it. Mine tended to fly out of my hand, or wimp out after a few folds. Delicate music. Every small movement meant something. A tilt of the head. Downcast eyes. I loved the weight of the long sleeve on my arm, as I raised it slowly into the air in exactly eight beats. Soft light from the shoji screens filtered into the room. They were pleased with me. I was thrilled.
How Sensory Experiences Build Character
The older I get, the more I appreciate these sensory experiences. As a writer, they give me lots to pull from when I’m thinking up characters. So far, no geishas, drunk Germans or feisty Italians have made it onto the pages of my novels, but having all those people wandering through my childhood opened me up. To seeing, feeling, smelling the world around me and imagining vivid characters.
All novels need a good plot, but without strong characters we hate or love, there’s no point in reading about what they do. Complete characters make us care what happens to them.
So, how do you create strong characters for your novel? I know there’s character-generating software out there, but really – isn’t that cheating? Besides, character creation is one of the funnest (I don’t care if that’s not a real word-I like it!) parts of writing. And I’m all about having fun.
If you write fiction, you probably already have a main character in mind. Male, female, android or chair, you have an idea of who they are. But even main characters need fleshing out. In my series, Logan McKenna began as a strong, female protagonist, about 5’ 8”, wavy, auburn hair, independent streak. Not much different than a zillion other strong, female protagonists out there in Mystery/Thriller land.
I could have left it at that – allowing her to conquer all comers and save every day. But that would have been boring. She had to have some flaws to make it interesting. Back and neck injuries from a car accident. Discovery that her husband who died in said car accident had been unfaithful. She’s broke. A good look in the mirror reveals further weaknesses she is going to have to overcome. She’s allowed her true self to get lost somewhere along the way – her Music, and passions as yet undiscovered.
For me, knowing who my character is before I write word one of my story, is critical. Once I know who they are, all I have to do is put them in a situation, and what they will do or say just flows. Usually. All that backstory takes time, I know, but it’s worth it. I keep my character’s brief life histories in a separate folder and refer back to them or add new details as I dream them up.
If you’re not sure where to start, use the old 5-senses trick. What does your character look, sound, feel, smell and taste (well, maybe not that one) like? Then go inside. What do they fear, avoid, crave? Do they see themselves clearly? And of course, the biggie…what do they want? Next, I like to explore small details – where did they go when they wanted to be alone as a kid? Where was their hideout? Family relationships are huge. Love life. Health. Accomplishments and failures.
So much for your protagonist. Antagonists are a LOT of fun to create and write. As I’ve said before on my author site, please don’t make your bad guy or woman two-dimensional. Since serial killers have been done to death, pardon the pun, I tend to create atypical antagonists – the average Jill or Joe who becomes a killer – one who didn’t wet the bed, start fires or pull wings off of butterflies as a child. I’m interested in how their minds can create a very twisted view of reality – so much so that they justify their behavior as rational. Again, backstory is essential to understanding their motivation and how they think.
Finally, we come to your extras – your supporting characters. We all love Abby’s brainiac, Goth character on NCIS, cross-dressing Klinger from M.A.S.H., or wholesomely manic Kenneth from 30 Rock. Have fun with these characters! They can be more one-dimensional, more extreme, but make them original. We don’t need another pig-tailed, super-smart CSI tech or computer geek chugging giant Slurpees. Your supporting cast should be like strong spices. Just the right amount makes the dish delicious. Too much overwhelms. Copying is boring.
Last, but not least, make it easy on your reader to keep everyone straight. Don’t give everyone sandy hair and brown eyes. Vary heights, occupations, and physical characteristics. Somebody needs a big nose or Dumbo ears. A raspy cough or that white spittle in the corner of their mouth. Maybe they favor tweed. Help us differentiate between characters.
Hope this gets your juices going. Keep your eyes open. Great characters are all around us. I’m off to the airport this afternoon to visit my sister – wonder who I’ll see today…
A self-admitted book addict, Valerie Davisson was the kid with the flashlight under her pillow, reading in bed long after lights out. Growing up in different countries led to degrees in Cultural Anthropology, Teaching, and a pervasive interest in people and how we navigate our world. Writing is her Passion! She is the author of Saturday Salon: Bringing Conversation and Community Back Into Our Lives, and the new Mystery/Thriller series featuring strong, female protagonist Logan McKenna. You can find her on her website at www.ValerieDavisson.com.