Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Building of (a) Character

Characters in stories have to be as tangible and consistent as would a real person be:  believable, and evolving and growing as they face down life.  All those things.  The characters are defined by how they react to situations, the internal processing of events, the words that come out of their mouth, and the atmosphere in which they move.

It is not easy to create a character, unless the writer starts at the skeletal level.

As I write, I must first capture the general person in the physicality of their presence.
My mother with her mother, 1970

My mother was 5’6”, medium build, slim and muscular, and pretty.  She had hazel green eyes and brown hair.  She worked hard all her life and was determined, even stubborn.  This formed the baseline for “Louise”, the mother in my book, In Preacher’s Creek. 

With the physical baseline, Louise acquired characteristics, much like a jigsaw puzzle.  Since I am a veteran people watcher, I observed bits & pieces of a stranger’s personality, and mentally noted the ones I wanted Louise to have.  Over time, Louise incorporated those ‘pieces’. 

I wrote character sketches for each character for In Preacher’s Creek.  These 3,000-5,000 word ‘portraits’ helped me to define who the character was, what he would do or how would he react, all around a stressful time in the small town life. 
My mother with her fiance', my dad

Louise had to face the responsibilities of being a mother at age 19, running a house and working on the farm with her husband, and having more children rather quickly. 

Louise also had to fight for her son, Kent, when it is discovered that he is nearly blind at one year of age.  The time period, the 1950s, limited options for a child with physical or learning disabilities.  Louise will have to be ‘Warrior Momma’ for Kent all his life.  This is part of her character portrait, as it is part of Kent’s own character sketch.

There are constant litmus tests I run for each character, to keep consistency and remain founded in their character.  For Kent and Ellen Jo, one litmus test was:  “They came to the huge crack in front of Old Mr. Parson’s house.  It had grown even since they had moved to Preacher’s Creek.  Should they jump over it?  Should they stomp on it, even though the nursery rhyme says, Step on a crack, break your mother’s back?  Or, should they kneel down, find a sharp stick, and dig for bugs?  

 True to their characters they will kneel down and scour for bugs and possibly treasures.  When Old Man Parsons yells, “Get outta here!”, they will take off like the devil himself was chasing them. When they get a block away, their weak bravado will allow Kent to yell something back. 

As for Louise, the phone will ring and she will hear Barb-the-telephone operator’s voice, who tells her what a neighbor heard Kent say.  When the children get home, Louise will respond to Kent’s actions consistently, according to the jig-saw pieces that have formed her. 

I know, I know.  Writing 3,000 words that will or may never be used for anything other than my own understanding seems like a waste of work.  For me, it puts the character firmly in my mind, a painting that moves, and keeps that person almost solid enough to touch.

That is what I want for each character.


  1. I don't think it's a waste at all--the more the writer knows about a character, the more realistic they will seem to the reader.

    Great post. :)

  2. Well done you, read that someone spends time on a train journey talking to his characters in his head and when his destination is reached he knows them very well indeed. Might try that... :0)

  3. Yeah if it helps definitely not a waste. I just throw a quirk or two of me into them or someone I know and build them around that. Can't get more realistic than real things you know. After a while I find they just take a life of there own.

  4. Hi Susan,
    I'm glad you spent the time writing about your characters. I am intrigued by In Preacher's Creek, so I will search a little more to see what I can find on your blog!
    Thanks for stopping by my blog and your comments. I do have a book planned (several actually!) but haven't seriously begun the process. It seems my time is mostly consumed with work, and family thrown in on occasion!
    I hope to get back to my blog tomorrow, but at the moment, I have a stack of papers to score and conference notes to write, and I can't allow myself the luxury of pleasure writing (except I had to check out your blog again!) I'm on a break!!

  5. I am also a people watcher! I would sit out side with my brother and we would pretend to know what the people across the street were thinking or saying. I love your black and white pics. Your Mom looked so young there with your Dad!
    Blessings, Joanne

  6. I'm fascinated that you have the discipline to build a world, and the patience to explain how it's done. A long way from Mark Twain who said when he didn't know what to do with a character he took him out back and pushed him down a well.

  7. Your mother sounds like a great person!

    I've got a character called Louise, too, and I love her!


Go won' t hurt...I'd love to hear what you think!