One of the things I like most are the questions I get from readers about my characters or my process. Megan G sent an email last year that addressed both! I thought I’d share it.
Megan wrote:… one more thing, do you always write your books in chronological order? For me, it’s hard to write a story from the very beginning because it gets really boring and story just kind of trails off and dies.Lol. And I also have this tendency to recreate characters from something I’ve either read about or seen. Where do you ideas for character come from?
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Let’s dive in here, shall we? Megan asked two specific questions. Do I write chronologically, and where do I get my character inspirations?
Chronological or Situational?
Let’s begin with how I write. For me, the story usually has a distinct opening. Whether it’s a stranger in a character’s bedroom (Justified Means), a girl who walks into a police station to report the death of her mother (Past Forward), or an elderly man observing the neighborhood as he finishes his yard work (The Matchmakers of Holly Circle), the opening sets a tone for the rest of the story. Rarely do the first words I open with not end up as the first words on the pages that my readers read.
That said, A Bird Died, changed my writing pattern. I couldn’t do it with that book–tried and couldn’t. Too much happened in different places at different times. So, I just wrote like crazy–every scene. And then I moved them around. Scrivener makes doing that so easy because you just rearrange the scenes and compile when you’re done. So nice.
A Forgotten Truth also diverged from my norm. Though a total surprise to me, several scenes ended up being written out of order just because I needed to rearrange a lot in order to create the biggest suspense possible. Most of it remained in the original order in which I wrote them, but because some scenes are somewhat unrelated, I could interject them wherever it would create the most authentic tension. And I did.
Am I weird or normal?
Of course, I’m weird. I’m convinced that Havig is Norwegian for “weird.” That said, at least half the authors I’ve spoken to write scene by scene regardless of order. They do have to go back and put in foreshadowing or follow through on things sometimes–things they didn’t know they’d do until it was written, but it works best for them. For me, when I don’t want to write a scene but I want to write the story (or I haven’t decided how the scene should go but I know I need one there, it’ll look something like this.
And that scene lived happily ever after…
And other times I do things like this:
This scene will have something fabulous about what a jerk so and so is. Don’t forget that maybe you could throw in the new guy here. Or scrap it all and write about unicorns and rainbows. I really don’t care. But you need a transition here, Chautona. Now get back to work.
Other times I set the tone and then get sarcastic with myself. Christy (the wonder editor) finds these quite amusing.
Jane ripped the covers from her in a dream-induced panic. Had she really dreamed of rainbows and unicorns? Seriously? Who had reduced her to the inanity of modernity in such obvious ways?
Yadda yadda. See? It becomes a placeholder for a scene I don’t want to write. But note: those are HARDER to weave in neatly for me. Why? Because as I write, I add in foreshadowing, pull back in things from previous chapters, and such. If I write them out of order, I miss some of that richness. So in the reread, there’s a lot of rewrite! I really don’t care to rewrite entire sections because, again, I lose that connectedness to the book.
But what about characters? How do you get them? Do you make them up or use people you know?
As for characters, I most often create composites of people I know, read, see on movies, or whatever than I realize. I tend to see a trait that I like (or a quirk, or a flaw, or whatever) and build from there. I love to give people a couple of quirks that don’t fit the rest of the character.
For example, I might create a total slob being OCD about tied shoelaces or something odd. I work hard to keep those subtle, so a lot of times people don’t catch on. And actually, I love it when they don’t. It makes me feel like it fit in neatly without jumping out and slapping you upside the head. One good thing to do is watch strangers. At a mall, at a dentist’s office. See what you can figure out about them that you KNOW is right and then move to presumptions based on that. I have a scene I wrote once. I thought I’d share it.
Life is full of great equalizers—freeway traffic, hospital waiting rooms, and hotel check-ins. Regardless of who you are, those things almost always blend you into the masses. A hand gripped a suitcase handle, pulling it two steps forward; another hand dropped a leather satchel, the little plastic feet making a clicking, skittering sound as it hit.
“Welcome to the Fairway Dells Inn. Do you have a reservation today?”
It was code for “if not, you’re out of luck, mister.”
“Robert Treveese. Arete House.”
The pleasantries began. How was his trip, did he need a bellhop, would he like dinner reservations, or was he attending the soiree? She asked for his identification as she passed a slip across the counter. “And will you be scheduling any amenities this trip?”
“I don’t know—probably not. Is it essential to do it now?”
“Not at all, but slots will fill quickly.”
Robert accepted his card key, grabbed the handle on his suitcase, and picked up the satchel. “Thank you.”
“Enjoy your stay.”
The elevator was crammed with guests and their luggage. Most had a single carry-on-sized suitcase and a laptop bag, but as usual, there was the one woman who had two suitcases, an overnight bag, a garment bag, and a bellhop trying desperately to keep her placated on the ride to her floor as he pushed her trolley off the elevator and onto the fourth floor. Note to self: avoid the elevator when frizzy-Fran appears.
He slid the keycard into the slot, and frowned when the green light refused to appear. Flipping it made no difference. Experience had taught him that calling the desk to request a new key would take much longer than a trip to the concierge desk. However, no matter how strong the temptation, he couldn’t bring himself to leave his luggage outside the door.
The familiar chime of the elevator signaling his arrival in the lobby prompted an internal debate as to whether the particular tone was chosen to soothe rather than irritate as he tried to navigate the even more crowded lobby. He paused behind a chair, waiting for a line of people that streamed toward the desk. While waiting, his eyes dropped to the occupant of the chair.
A pen scrawled almost feverishly across a pad of paper, the words a blur. Just as he saw the opportunity to weave through a break in the crowd, the hand scratched through one of the previous lines. A sigh barely reached his ears and a large, wide X followed.
Lost in curiosity regarding what would prompt such a wholesale dismissal of whatever the woman—it had been a woman’s hand, hadn’t it?—was writing, Robert didn’t notice that he’d left his satchel at the concierge desk until he’d unpacked his suitcase and reached for the toiletry bag he kept in the end pocket.
He was on a mission—but the scrawling swipes of the pen in that same chair tempted him to pause. She was on a fresh page, but how many pages had she filled in the wasted fifteen minutes since his last trek past. This time a word stood out on the page—espionage. A second glance made it even more intriguing. She’d actually written “master of espionage.”
A bellhop hurried to him, satchel in hand. “Mr. Lassier said that this is yours?”
“Yes, thank you.”
As he started to return to the elevators, a new line and then more appeared on the page. The words startled him.
Voice: Deep but slightly melodic. Polite but distracted. He must be tall, but how tall… maybe 6’3”?
Despite his curiosity, he forced himself to return to his room. Was that what “master of espionage” was too? Some strange sort of observation about one of the guests? He found it hard to imagine that some wannabe author had uncovered a covert agent in the lobby of the Fairway Dells.
His room, as usual, was perfect. Not every conference was equally well appointed, which made the Carmel Writer’s Conference one of his favorite’s each year. With everything put away, and his bags stowed in the closet, Robert kicked off his shoes and collapsed on the bed, hands behind his head, eyes closed. Five hours—it was only five hours until the Opening Soiree. After the flight in from Maine, he needed that time to rest.
His fingers twitched, and Robert loosened his tie, trying to relax again. He’d been exhausted from the moment he stepped off the puddle jumper from San Jose at Monterey. So, if his body was so worn out, why was he not asleep? Attending the notoriously dull soiree wasn’t an option. As he joked with his mother each time she asked why he insisted on going, “that’s why they paid me the big bucks.”
Fifteen more minutes of restless torture had him no closer to getting some much-needed sleep. There was no doubt as to why. He was fascinated by the hand, the pen, the paper, and the combination of “master of espionage” on one page with a description of his own voice, a fairly close match to his height, and the accurate observation of distraction. Did she know why—why he was distracted?
Another page flipped over, and Welss Eversoll shifted to a more comfortable position in her seat. For the third time, she started a new profile of the middle-aged woman at the desk. Maybe this time she’d come up with something useable.
Woman: Chignon, blond, narrow face, elegant and attractive but not pretty. Average height. Controlled voice—even when provoked. Doesn’t smile genuinely or has a naturally fake smile—poor dear. Her name should be Lila or Larissa. She also should be a surgeon—neuro. It might explain the fakeness. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if she was on assignment for corporate espionage with that other guy. Interesting.
The frizzy-haired redhead fairly sailed past wearing a flowing bohemian skirt paired with a tube top that looked pulled from her seventies bureau. Frantically, Welss flipped her pages backward and added a few lines to the redhead. Without a doubt, this woman was solid gold.
Woman: Chin-length red frizzy corkscrews—should learn the curly gurl thing. Short with glasses. They should be a bold color—slap you upside the head yellow or neon green. Loud, brash voice, but melodic laughter. The voice is likely affected for some idiotic reason. She dresses to be seen—loud colors and eclectic combinations of styles.
She’d been right. It was perfect—absolutely perfect. The woman needed a name and an occupation.
She does something artistic—photography, painting, sculpture, beading, or even writing. Her voice IS affected and for the purpose of creating the aura of an “artiste.” Her real name is Kim Franklin, but she goes by Adelle Whispers. Oh, the irony.
A snicker behind her sent her fingers flying past a couple of pages to find another entry.
Voice: Deep but slightly melodic. Polite but distracted. He must be tall, but how tall… maybe 6’3”? A snicker that is probably what sparked the idea for the name of the candy bar—rich, velvety, with a sprinkle of salty goodness to keep it from being stuffy. The man is probably not accustomed to eaves-reading. He should also have the decency to introduce himself.
A strangled cough was followed by the shift of something in her peripheral vision. “Is this chair taken?”
Welss glanced at the man and shook her head, scratching off 6’3” and changing it to 6’2”. Holding it out for his inspection, he shook his head. “Actually, I’m 6’3.5” if you want to get technical.”
“Fascinating book you have there.”
“It serves its purpose.” Her eyes took in his appearance and added the dark hair with a wave on one side that refused to be straightened, his blue eyes, and his glasses.
“You might add that the glasses were just in case. I don’t wear them all the time.”
A single line through the remarks about glasses solved that error. Welss started to close the book when the man introduced himself. “I’m Robert Treveese—Arete House.”
“Welss Eversoll—housewife.” At the man’s silent but direct glance at her ringless hand, she added. “Well, they don’t have any such thing as a housewidow.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I’m sorry for bringing it up. I never know what to say. I can’t pretend it isn’t true, and if I mention it, someone else feels bad.”
Robert stared at her as if trying to read if she meant it or not. It happened every time she met someone in the past three years. They asked about her occupation or if she had a family, and there she was stuck. She could be awkward and miserable about it and make them curious until they asked and then got miserable about it with her, or she could skip the frills and get it over with—Band-Aid style.
He pointed to her notebook. “You like to study people?”
“Gives me ideas.” She saw the question in his eyes and sighed. “I write. I live in a remote area, so when I get somewhere that has a wide variety of people, I like to take down character sketches. People are amazing.”
You might ask, “Isn’t that cheating?”
Nope. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by a person or another character. Just make sure yours has something unique to him that the inspiration didn’t have so it’s not a copy. You’ll have more fun with it and no one will complain. 🙂 In fact, when I am inspired by a book, movie, actor, celebrity, local character at Denny’s, or whatever, I strive to improve on the original. If I was going to write the next Narniaesque novel, I’d be sure my characters were even more lovable–even if just to me.
Still, most of those characters inspired by real people happened without me realizing it. And that’s pretty cool, too.