Fiction writers endure a lot of grief from our friends and family members about characters. We all claim that they’re completely fictional but inevitably, some joker will read one of our stories, corner us someplace, then insist with a lascivious grin “That was really based on so-and-so, wasn’t it? Come on, you can tell me! It’ll be our little secret.”
I’m sorry to burst their balloon, but my characters are not—repeat, not!—based entirely on people I know. I usually take bits and pieces from different acquaintances or people I encounter, then use them to form a whole person. It’s sort of like following a recipe—take one physical attribute, mix in a unique hairstyle or color, add a dash of cute smile, a smidgen of speech pattern or a catchphrase, an eye-catching style of dress, blend them all together, and voila!—you have a character.
I know writers who will compose complete biographies and backstories before they even write the first line. One of them is a good friend who writes cozy mysteries. She works out all the details in advance—age, body type (including height, build, hair and eye color), glasses or contacts, how they walk, clothing preferences, speech patterns, occupation, and background. She relies on this to help build a realistic character, and it’s effective.
One writer sent me a list that they complete when creating a character. It included the things I mentioned above, plus these other details: Do they live alone or with others? What is that relationship like? Do they have children? What are they like? Does the person own a home or live in an apartment? How is it furnished? Tidy or sloppy? How often do they change their clothes? What is their favorite and least-favorite food? What kind of music do they like?
There are a total of 20 questions she answers in detail before starting the story. Many of them resemble those asked by an online dating service. Granted, this guarantees a well-defined character, but if you did this for every person in your story, and you have a large cast of supporting players, this could consume a lot of time.
I discovered early on that part of the joy of reading a good story was populating the cast with my favorite actors and actresses. Reading a Phillip Marlowe or Mike Hammer adventure when I was in high school was more enjoyable when I envisioned people like Bogart, Ladd, Bacall or Stanwyck essaying the lead characters. After watching the Sherlock Holmes movie series from the 1940s, I can’t read one of Doyle’s stories without Basil Rathbone coming to mind.
When I first started writing fiction, an editor gave me some valuable advice—when you introduce a character, include a brief physical description. This turned out to be something I do with every character I conceive. Even if they don’t have much to do and will be gone by the end of the chapter, I usually have something in mind. It can be detailed, or something as simple as “He sported several days’ growth of beard, and his potbelly hung over the waist of his soiled khaki cargo shorts.”
The scenes I write all play out like movies on a giant screen in my mind. When I settle on a plot, I’ve usually assembled my dream cast of favorites to play the parts. Sometimes, this comes in handy when writing physical descriptions, but it wasn’t something I always did on a regular basis. In one of my early romantic comedies, “Anywhere the Heart Goes,” the female lead kept reminding me of someone the more I wrote. I finally realized that I had to settle on who it was, and it came to me. What I had created was a clone of one of my favorite TV actresses. That made it easier for me to describe her moving forward.
The balancing act is to provide just enough detail to give the reader a visual cue, without spoiling their fun. There’s a story about Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. He was alive to see the first two Bond movies being filmed in the early 1960s, and was still writing new 007 adventures. Fleming visited the set of “Dr. No,” and became entranced by actress Ursula Andress, who played the first Bond girl, Honey Ryder. So enamored was Fleming that in his work-in-progress, he referred to a female character as looking “just like Ursula Andress.”
Talk about a spoiler alert! In one sentence, he destroyed my own concept of what the woman looked like, and replaced her with his personal dream girl. My imaginary goddess might have been Diana Rigg or Raquel Welch for all I remember, but it definitely wasn’t Ursula Andress.
I hate to rain on the parade, but here’s the cold sobering truth: you can include all kinds of details in your characters, the setting, the atmosphere, and the action, but sadly, most people won’t pay close attention or remember it. When it comes to reading, we’ve become a society of skimmers with short attention spans. To prove my point, here’s a personal experience.
One of my mystery/thrillers contained a big fight scene at the climax between the hero and the primary bad guy. It was like something you’d see in a Marvel or James Bond adventure. I visualized it in my mind, playing out on that mental movie screen I mentioned, and I worked very hard to convey it in words. It took me a long time, because I fussed over every word and bit of action to make it realistic. A friend of mine read the book, complimented me on that particular scene, then deflated my balloon with the following statement.
“I’ll bet it took you a long time to write that, but it only took me about a couple of minutes to read it.”
Sometimes, I can’t win for losing.