Not Quite A Character Building Exercise



Catie couldn’t think of a thing to say and here I am posting a day early. But I have Internet access, and it may be gone by morning….Soooo….


David started me off on Monday thinking about how I build a new main character. And…I don’t really know. I’m feeling my way through this one.


Like David, it’s not just a character I build, but a world, and in the case of fantasy, a magic system. All of it has to blend together, fit like the chinks in the logs of a log home. Some of it I want to be totally new, never done, and fresh as a new penny. Some I want to be almost trite, close to what Misty called a trope. Like David pointed out when we spent time on tropes earlier this summer, it’s the way a tried and true subject is presented that makes it work or not, not how tried or true it is. Also, the expected makes us comfortable with a character, and the quirky parts make us interested.


Take House—Dr. Gregory House. The things we all want in a diagnostician are there: intelligence, never giving up, driving fascination with a patient and his problem. This is expected and desired. But…let’s face it. House is an SOB. I’ve known uncompassionate MDs like him and they are little more than medical-torturer henchmen. I actually heard one such guy say, “Oh it hurts? How about that? Or this? Does *this* hurt?” And laugh and shake his head. Yet, House is an interesting character. He works in the storylines presented.


But back to character building. David’s creative method is much like the way my hubby used to build a home, thoughtful, linear, almost painstakingly careful, and elegant. For me, it all comes together oddly. A little slapdash. Okay, a lot slapdash. Here’s how Jane Yellowrock worked.


I had just discovered that I have a lot of Cherokee in my lineage. A *lot*. The first Prater (my family name) came to this country in the 1600s as a bond slave, worked 20 years for his freedom and then took off for the hills, where he bought himself a Cherokee wife. His sons followed daddy’s lead and also bought wives from the Cherokee. This went on for a lot of generations. On mama’s side, I had just found out that I was Nansemond and Choctaw. American Indian themes were on my mind.


Because of this, I had been reading Cherokee legends and stories and was especially attentive to the skinwalker myths. That’s the background.


I was having tea with…I think it was Kim, and I said, “I have this idea for a character, a Cherokee skinwalker. And there’s this phrase I can’t get out of my mind. Katie’s Ladies.” And suddenly I knew… It all fell into place. I said, “Like in a house of ill repute.”


Kim (Arrg. Was it Kim?) said something like, “You want to write about a whore?”


I said, “No. But Katie owns the whore house and her Ladies need protection from a vampire. Maybe a rogue vamp. And my character is a skinwalker, who kills rogue vamps.”


“I like,” saith she. “What’s her name?”


“Jane. Vamp killer and muscle for hire. Have stakes will travel.” (You saw it first here.)


At which point we both giggled.


And with that I had Jane’s ethnicity, age range (must have advantage of youth to kill vamps,) magical nature, moxie, physical description (American Indian Cherokee but with something extra) no family or pets (how else can she travel, but fast, light, and alone) and all the building blocks just fell into place. I had probably been working it out in my subconscious mind for days, though the conscious creative parts took about a minute. After one and a fourth books in her series, I am still discovering who the character is. Am still being surprised by her, and taking pleasure in uncovering her backstory. It is a job of discovery as much as one of building or creating. It is also the lazy way to build a character. I don’t recommend it to anyone else. I’d never tell someone to try it my way. David’s is much more sensible and teachable and elegant. But it has worked for me for the last 17 books. Will I change my method? I could. I might. I probably even should. My way is haphazard, and such things tend to fall apart after a while. But I haven’t changed my method-less method yet. I am enjoying the journey too much to try something different right now.





7 comments to Not Quite A Character Building Exercise

  • Judy

    Hey Faith,

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

    Your characters are wonderful, full of depth. When I re-read your books(and I always do), I discover more and more about the characters.

    I LOVE Jane, keep writing her! I keep wondering what’s “going” on with her!

    Enjoy discovering your Cherokee lineage. One of the best things I ever did was to follow my lineage back to my Cree heritage. Just wish I had done it sooner, when some of the grandmothers and grandfathers were still alive.


  • Beatriz


    First, thanks for sharing how you do it. It’s always interesting to read how all of you do things your own way but end up with such marvelous results.

    And speaking of marvelous results– I don’t like you any more. 🙂

    I read how Jane was born and instantly thought “Wow! I want to read that.”

    Not the casual, “hey, add that book to the list and pick it up one of these days” kind of want to read it.

    Instead, it is the “OMG, stop on the way home from work tonight and buy it and start reading it RIGHT THIS INSTANT” kind of want to read it.

    Quick search on Borders to reserve a copy. Nope. Amazon. Nope.

    So, Faith, how long do I have to suffer before I’ll get my greedy lil mits on it in the bookstore?

  • Thanks, Judy. I wish I had more info from my own greats and great greats, but they were passing as white at a time when to be Am.In. was dangerous and difficult — not that it is any easier today. They hid a *lot* of info.

    And, um, oh, dear, *Bea*. You hate me??? *laughing*
    Afraid it will be worse now….
    Skinwalker will be out in ummm…in July 09.
    Many months.
    So I guess that chocolate and brandy are out, eh?

  • Great post — great story. I didn’t mean to suggest the other day that my characters all come to me through the mechanical process I describe. I did make it seem that way, and I apologoize for that. I’ll come up with a character in all sorts of strange ways. One of the voices in my head will assert itself and suddenly a character is there, introducing him/herself. THEN I begin that exploration I described the other day. It helps me, keeps me focused and allows that person to come to life for me. But those sudden flashes of inspiration are very much part of my process too. And they’re WONDERFUL.

  • Judy

    Hey Faith,

    Yeah, mine were “passing” too. It was pretty rough in Canada to be considered “native” and it was easier and safer in the long run to pretend to be white. It’s sad to think of all the history that was lost because of it.

    Easier today, but I find that folks still have many pre-conceived notions about being AmIn, not all good either.

    You really have to get up here to DC sometime to see the National Museum of the American Indian. I’ve been more times than I can count and still find something new every time. It’s a peaceful, sacred place.

    When I started researching the Cree language, I came across a bunch of words that my Memere used I thought were French, turned out to be Cree.


  • David, I don’t thik of what you do as mechanized, so much as thorough. When I start writing a new character I have only the bare bones. As the plot progress, the character just evolves and by the *end* of book one, I have a character file, with backstory. Yours is much more streamlined and purposeful, with you challenging your creative mind to envision the character in full. I just never do that. So my characters totally surprise me every time. Which sometimes trips me up and causes problems. *smiles* On the other hand, my plots are often painstakinly outlined.

    Judy, I fully intend to get back to DC someday (when we have gas again) and see the museum. Thanks!

  • Beatriz


    Chocolate & brandy are NEVER out, even if I have to wait nearly a year for the book.