Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How To Create Memorable Characters

Today's guest speaker is once again the multi-talented Kathy Cottrell, editor extraordinare at The Wild Rose Press, (Kathy is the senior editor for our Last Rose of Summer line), author of two novels as Kat Henry Doran, and creator of beautiful custom-made tote bags. Check them out on her newly re-designed website, created by the incomparable Rae Monet, who also created my website.

Today, Kathy has kindly offered to share with us her thoughts on creating memorable characters. I apologize for all the underlining, as I can't seem to get rid of it despite many tries, and it doesn't show up in her original document. But when I transfer it here...

Oh, well. The information is just as invaluable underlined as not underlined. And now it won't let me add Kat's book cover to this post, so I will post this, and if it shows up, fine, if not...I tried!

First, we should think about the heroes and heroines we already know and love, then determine what is it about them that makes us return to the TV screen each week to get our fix of Brenda Lee Johnson on “The Closer”, Charlie Crews on “Life”; Adrian Monk on “Monk”, or read [again] our tattered copies of Kathleen Woodiwiss, Harry Potter, or Eve Dallas and Roarke.

Some of Ms. Woodiwiss' characters date back to the 70's and 80's, yet are unforgettable:
1. ASHES IN THE WIND is set in New Orleans at the close of the American Civil War. The hero, army surgeon Cole Latimer, feels indebted to a young waif “Al” after the boy saves him from drowning and offers him a job in the army hospital. It is months before Cole realizes “Al” is really Alaina, a gentle born Southern woman, hiding in broad daylight from Union soldiers because she has been falsely accused of treason after she transported letters to the family of a dead Confederate soldier.

2. SHANNA wears the hot sultry influence of the Caribbean Islands like a cloak, and moves from England, to the Indies, climaxing in pre-Revolutionary War American colonies. The heroine, Shanna, in order to meet her father's dictate that she marry, finds a man in an English jail who is bound for the hanging tree. She has him cleaned up before they marry; he agrees to the proposal only because she promises of one night of marital bliss. Just as bliss is about to commence, she coshes him over the head and flees back home. Of course the hero escapes and follows her to the Caribbean as an indentured servant. Of course he's looking for “bliss” while she's looking for peace and quiet. Another hoot of a story.

How do we intrigue the reader into coming back for more either by turning the next page or buying our next book? Donald Maas, in HOW TO WRITE THE BREAK-OUT NOVEL, suggests throwing one or both of them into the deep end of a strange pool, and be sure to hide a few boulders beneath the surface to keep them on their toes. Nothing was more fun than reading Eve Dallas try to cope with Roarke's immense wealth and numerous “toys”. In her futuristic crime series “In Death” series, Nora Roberts created a world where red meat and coffee are but fond memories of most people. Not so for Roarke who woos Eve, the street smart homicide detective, with a perfectly grilled steak, then a bag of Brazilian roasted beans.

We owe it to our readers to make our characters unique, but at all times believable. Brenda Lee Johnson, called The Closer because of her skills in closing investigations by convincing suspects to confess, is a transplanted Georgia peach, lured to the Los Angeles Police Department by a former lover/current Deputy Chief of the LAPD with promises he never intended to keep. While riding herd on a group of renegade homicide detectives, she builds her wardrobe at the local Volunteers of America store, never leaves a room without an over-sized handbag hanging off one shoulder; has a passion for anything chocolate; and every other phrase out of her mouth is, “Thank yewww, thank yewww very much.”

Going into the fourth season [I think], each of these secondary characters is a story in and of themselves. Lt. Provenza, who never dates women over 30, well . . . 40—if he's been drinking, has forgotten more than most cops will ever learn, and would sooner die in the line of duty than retire to prevent his first ex-wife from getting her marital share of his pension. Lt Flynn, a late 40's Lothario with a toothpick stuck in the corner his mouth, takes indolence to new heights. Ten years sober, thanks to Alcoholic Anonymous, Flynn harbors a grudging respect for Chief Johnson, but would choke twice and die before admitting it. Detective Julio Sanchez with the dark, haunted eyes, is the “go-to” guy when it comes to the barrio and gang cultures. He's also about as homophobic as they come. Bald Lt Tao is a wizard with computers; and Brenda's aide, the uptight Sgt. Gabriel, and a hunk if there ever was one, has eyes that would burn the soles off a woman's shoes. He's bright, savvy, intelligent and devoted to her.

As evidenced above, by the late Ms. Woodwiss' leading characters and the detectives who comprise Priority Homicide, one way to build memorable characters is to make them vastly different from each other. This takes some planning. I use a tool which I call the Character Interview. This is a multi-page document, a former RWA chapter mate brought back from the New Jersey Romance Writers conference many years ago. Over the years it has undergone many revisions but the concept remains the same. In long hand, I interview my lead characters. Before I can do that however, I have to know at least one basic thing about them.

In CAPTAIN MARVELOUS, I wanted a heroine with a brain and balls to match. The one thing I knew: she would do anything to achieve her career goal of becoming a physician and will let nothing and no one stop her. That's all I needed to interview Annie Wolfe. Why does she want to be a doctor? Why will she never marry and have children? I asked her to tell me about her family of origin; where did she grow up; did they have money, live from paycheck to paycheck, or did they eat out of dumpsters? Then I asked her to tell me about her family of the heart. Who are her friends, heroes, enemies? I need to know how she relaxes, what turns her on, and off, in terms of favorite foods, music, and clothes. What kind of car does she drive; how does she drive—is she a speed demon or careful and cautious?

I decided the hero had to be the exact opposite of Annie: staid, rigid and always in control—no matter what, a single parent with a desire for more children, someone who always follows the rules. Captain Ronen Marvelic, a New York State Trooper with a steel rod up his spine, was born. After being banished from the cultural hub of Western New York, he arrives in the bowels of the earth on the Northern border of the Catskill Mountains. No Man's Land is a place where a man takes a woman to the local drive-in for a Rambo marathon on their first date--or to the town dump to shoot rats. On his first day in town, Ronen encounters a woman who lives in the apartment across the hall, a long-legged, softball playing smart mouth named Annie Wolfe, aka Wolfgirl, for her abilities at short stop. He thrives on opera; Annie considers it all a bunch of fat ladies singing their brains out. He loathes sports of any kind; she has life-sized posters of baseball players and golfers papering her apartment. Ronen is assigned to investigate the murders of six women; Annie is coerced into helping him by developing victim profiles. Throw in a landlady who's a throw-back to the 60's, a decrepit town doctor with an amazing resemblance to my own father, and a 17 year old college bound teenager and the fun begins.

Don't forget to give your characters a few warts. After all, defects of character are what make this world go 'round. Annie Wolfe [CAPTAIN MARVELOUS] believes her only value is in becoming a doctor. While Ronen Marvelic [CAPTAIN MARVELOUS] has his career path carefully laid out, he disdains any woman who doesn't want a husband and children. Maggie McGuire [TRY JUST ONCE MORE] spent years living at the bottom of a scotch bottle and doesn't know how to pick out a good piece of fruit? Why would anyone think she's capable of picking out a good man? Eve Dallas [____ IN DEATH series] identifies herself by her job, and uses a prickly pear exterior to hide an inferiority complex as big as Montana. Mike Brandt [TRY JUST ONCE MORE] escaped a loveless marriage with only the clothes on his back, a cat, and a mountain of regret thanks to an ex-wife who cared more about titles and dollar signs. He's not about to hook up with some dame who carries herself like the Queen of Sheba and has more secrets than Homeland Security.

And that's how I create my characters.


Nicole McCaffrey said...

Great blog, Kat! And excellent advice on characterization!

Sarah Simas said...

Hi Kat!

I loved your post. OMG! There so much awesome information in there. *heehee* I even took notes! LOL

Your advice is top shelf!!

Mary Ricksen said...

This was a great and informative post, thank you.

Elaine Cantrell said...

Lots of great info here. Thanks for the post.

jean hart stewart said...

Thanks for your post. I too fell in love with Shana. I too don't begin to write until I know all about my characters. Generally I fall for them so giving them warts is hard, but I try..

Kat Henry Doran Author said...

thanks to Nicole, Sarah, Mary, Elaine, and Jean, not only for stopping by Liana's spot, but for taking the time to comment. Jean, do not worry about "warts"--it could be something as minor as: never exceeding the speed limit under ANY circumstances; making sure the food on your plate never touches; putting your socks on before your trousers; rubbing your feet together as you fall asleep [I do this one. it drives my husband nuts!].