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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Getting to Know You…

March 15, 2011

It may be surprising that when it comes to creating characters I do it the old-fashioned way.  Well, probably not surprising if you haven’t really been following this blog.  Anyway, when it comes to plotting I do most of that in advance, but characters I create largely on the fly.  In my mind that’s really the only way to do it.

Of course in plotting in advance I get some idea of the character beforehand.  When I started on the Tales of the Scarlet Knight series, I knew our hero Dr. Emma Earl was going to be an orphan like all the good superheroes–Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc.–so I already knew going in she was going to have a Traumatic Past.  And I knew she was going to have a best friend named Becky and that she was going to work at the Plaine Museum of Natural History and gotten her doctorate at a very young age.

But I didn’t know so many of the little things.  And some of the very little things I still don’t know.  What’s Emma’s favorite color?  I don’t know.  When making the Mii for my Wii I used red for the irony because she wears red armor.  What’s her favorite food?  Do protein shakes count?  Otherwise, I don’t know.

I did find out some of the other little things though.  These came about in a completely organic way, not just in writing the first story, but those that came after.  Emma is allergic to chocolate and all flowers except daisies.  Did I sit down and think that out ahead of time?  No.  When her new boyfriend Dan comes over I had him bring chocolates and flowers and thought it would be funny if she were allergic to them.  This also seemed to go with the idea that she’s a nerd.  In the third story when she “dies” I had her waking up in a field and on a whim decided there would be daisies in it.  Why daisies?  Why not daisies?

What did her parents do for a living?  Her father was a CPA and her mother was a cellist until shortly before Emma was born, when she became a stay-at-home mom to care for her little genius.  How did I decide this?  Well, I’m an accountant so that’s obvious, right?  As for her mom, a big fight scene takes place at the opera house, so it made for some good drama that Emma has memories of being there before and feels her parents’s ghosts there.  Why the cello?  I don’t know; why NOT the cello?

What kind of music does she listen to?  Opera.  This was actually established in the first draft of the fifth story, and not until the epilogue.  Then it provided some great atmosphere for the big twist ending!  We also establish then that Emma doesn’t listen to music unless she’s upset and can’t read, which is what a nerd like her does most of the time.

I used this when I rewrote the first one so that when she gets upset Emma listens to tapes of her mother playing that her father made before they died.  When I updated the second one, this led to a great scene where Emma meets her mother thanks to an altered timeline and her mom plays something on the cello for her before they have to part.

Does she have any hobbies?  Her only hobby besides reading is jogging, something I established in the first scene of the first draft of the first story.  That scene was later dropped, but I used it as a way for her to meet Dan outside the museum and for them to bond a little.  Later I established that she tried to play the violin as a child but didn’t have the knack for it, which led to retroactively providing a neat tidbit about her having to cope with failure for the first time.  And in the aforementioned fifth one we establish that she can’t do anything artistic, not like her new boyfriend Jim.

Now then, all this stuff just came out through trial, error, and bizarre whims.  Yet it all comes together to FIT in the end.  Could I have come up with all of that if I’d sat down and answered a bunch of questions on a worksheet or if I used an RPG program?  No.

That’s the thing, you don’t make characters on an assembly line.  Or at least you shouldn’t.  You have to let them be them.  The best way to do that in my mind is to just get busy writing the story and see where it goes.  Maybe that’s a bit messy at times, but it’s definitely more fun to me.

BTW, in an entry last year I described my process for coming up with names–or lack thereof.  In Emma’s case I was writing a group of short stories and on a whim I decided every main character would have a name starting with E.  Why E?  Why not E?  Then since it was a superhero story I wanted to use something alliterative, like Lois Lane or Vicki Vale.  Earl came from “Batman Begins” and the Rutger Hauer character Mr. Earle.  As for the Emma part, I’d already used up some other ones, so that was the first one left to pop into my head.

Later when I was writing the second story in the series I came up with the clever message behind this.  Her full name is Emma Jane Earl, so I included a line that said her mom was a fan of Jane Austen, the author of “Emma.”  There you go.  Brilliant, huh?  Accidental genius!  That’s the only kind for a guy like me.

Thursday is another entry…


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  1. I like the organic way you create characters!

  2. I think that if anyone is allergic to chocolate, that this qualifies the novel to be a dystopian and there are too many of these on the market in my opinion. Might as well just say the world is as miserable as the one in the Hunger Games.

  3. Sounds great. Mine sort of walk into my head and go:

    “Ah… no… I have a thing about letting pink bunnies into my room…”


  4. This was really interesting; I don’t think I have a system for creating characters like that at all, but most of my characters tend to be ciphers. I like how you use the character’s traits to wrap their world around them.

  5. I’ve started to follow an interviewer approach to creating my characters when I have time to plan for it, which is a bit more structured and yet organic at the same time. Using questionnaires I find online can be a good way to start – asking my characters, figuring out which ones they’re ready to start talking about first and which ones make them clam up.

    By the way, why do you call this feature ‘Terrible Tips Tuesday’? Some of these tips are really pretty good.

    And I’m pleased to let you know that I’m featuring “Every Other Writer Has a Blog… Why Can’t I?” as my Crusader Spotlight for this week! Congratulations and all of that.

  6. I didn’t create my characters before I started writing either. I did base a few of the side characters on two or more people I knew though so that I could get a handle on them better. By the second draft they no longer resemble the people I based them on and are holding their own.

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