Years ago, I came up with a concept for a novel where a group of people wake up, and find most of civilization just… gone. You go to bed, everyone’s there, you wake up, most of the people are just… well… dead.
Then I was telling someone about a movie I saw years later, and he dismissed it by saying, “Yeah, well, that’s because 28 Days Later essentially ripped off your book idea.”
Of course, I couldn’t think of what to say about that.
Plots are really simple. “What if…?” And then building them is well, easy.
Characters, though, are essentially your answer.
If I take “The Last Man Alive” and replace Vincent Price’s Character with someone who essentially is a Clint Eastwood type, you suddenly get a different movie. That’s exactly how they created the “Omega Man”, was by taking “The Last Man Alive” and putting Charlton Heston in it. I guess Charlton went through a phase in the 60’s and Seventies where he suddenly was a Charles Bronson-Clint Eastwood type.
Your Characters become essentially the tool box you use. Hero needs impact character, but doesn’t know it. There’s sidekick, who manages to take the pressure off of Hero. Impact Character needs Nero, and you wonder how impact character made it through life previously. Antagonist is trying to ruin everything.
So… where do I get my characters? I write. They do something. That something often defines who they are for me, until more actions and more dialogue pops up.
I don’t put my friends into novels. I don’t put my co-workers into novels. One person who I see at work regularly, I borrowed his description for one character – but not his personality. I just needed something I could hang a hat on that character, and his hair ended up being it.
Nobody in my family ends up in my stories. I want to be able to read my stories and enjoy them, so… nobody in my family will ever be a character.
I just sit down, put fingers on keys, and I write a name. “Sarah”. Okay. “Sarah was reading a novel…”
Believe it or not, I see her now. She’s someone who’s mother was overly domineering, and so Sarah just left home after high school, got a job as a dog groomer at a pet store, and… she sits around at night, watching old classic movies. Her best friend taunts her by asking, “Is anyone in that movie even alive anymore?”
That’s how I create my characters. It’s a visceral, gut feeling. The hero of my stories I created one day, while trying to visualize him driving through traffic. The city I live in has a bizarre phenomenon I’ve never seen anywhere else – people here drive under the speed limit. It’s nothing at all for these people to just take up both lanes, and drive at 30 miles an hour in a 45 zone. And it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t get around them.
So, my hero developed over a character that would drive at precisely 5 miles an hour over the speed limit. Enough to show he originated in New England, but precisely under control no more, no less than 5 miles an hour over the posted limit.
And I stuck him behind a car driving at precisely 5 miles an hour under the speed limit.
I saw my hero character right away. Fingers tapping at the steering wheel, snorting through his nose (did you know the ancient Hebrew word for Anger is also the same word for nose?). He needs to drive at precisely the right speed, and he’s being frustrated in that.
My impact character… it took me a little bit to see her. Essentially, I think I had her pegged by her questioning not only herself, but the Hero in one scene. “Are you sure we can do this?”
But it was the scene where you are introduced to her that defined her. I wrote a scene of her in the Realty office, where she’s struggling to figure out why her sales leads are always disappearing. And there’s a too-loud woman in the same office, who drives a Jaguar the Realty firm bought her, and she wears fur coats inside, just to show she’s made a lot of money.
The reader grasps it right away – Miss High Sales has been stealing Impact Character’s sales leads and made herself rich doing it. So, the impact character later on quite simply takes her address book home with her, and her portfolio. And suddenly she makes a million dollars in real estate sales in one three-week period.
I just was resolved, this woman was going to achieve every idle dream she’d had before the main part of the novel kicked in.
When you’ve got a 10-volume novel series, essentially you’re playing with the same characters. Every now and then, take one out, put a new one in. It changes up the mix, and essentially, the characters change as well. So, give them their needs in one book, deprive them in another.
So, that’s how I get my characters.