SANDRA CAREY CODY: ON CHARACTERS-Part II
Recently I shared how I come up with the characters for my mysteries. But I left them as mere outlines, flat and stereotypical. If a character is to capture the reader’s imagination, the outline has to be filled in.
Characters need bodies. Are they fat or thin, short or tall? The body they live in affects who they are because it affects how other people react to them. So you have to give them the right body. Sometimes it’s helpful to drop a hint or two about how they got that body. Does your buff hero lift weights because he was the only kid in his high school gym class who couldn’t climb the rope? Was your svelte heroine a chubby wallflower in college? Is that why she nibbles at a salad and skips dessert? And, if she skips dessert, is she in a perpetual bad mood? (I would be!) A character’s body says a lot about him and, in some cases, it imposes limitations on him or presents special challenges, elements that can become part of the story and enrich a reader’s understanding of that character’s actions.
Once you get the body right, there are all those other little things that make up what we see of a human being: the clothes they wear, the kind of music they listen to. Do jet-black roots peak through that perfect shade of blonde? Do they drive a SUV? A sports car? Do they smoke? Chew gum? Because these things represent choices, they tell what kind of person the character is. And, if the writer makes good choices for his characters, they come to life for the reader.
Every character needs a name. Obviously. Almost as obvious, it has to be the right name. When you dress a character, you tell something about him because clothes represent a personal choice. But we don’t pick our own names. You could say a character’s name tells more about his parents than himself. It says something about their background and aspirations. And, since those things (parents, background, aspirations) play a part in who all of us, both real and fictional, are, a character’s name should reflect them. And, as a purely practical matter, you don’t want the names to sound too much alike. A reader shouldn’t have to stop and figure out who’s doing what. It’s the writer’s job to make that clear.
Once you’ve done all these things, you have a named personality with a whole host of visual attributes. But is this personality a character? Not yet. Even more important are emotions, hopes and dreams, secrets and fears. Figure out these things and you have a character. Do it enough times and you have a cast for your story. Assembling my cast is the part of writing I love best; it’s where I have the most fun. It’s my little universe. I created these people and they do what I say–up to a point. In every story, there’s at least one character who refuses to let me pull the strings. He sits on my shoulder and tells me who he is and what he will–or won’t–do. And that is the most fun of all!