I Know Who That Is!

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Last Friday morning, I had the delightful pleasure of being interviewed via webcam by the Dutch Fork High School Beyond the Best Sellers class. I was nervous – I’d never been interviewed that way before! When the connection went through, several of the students growled “Arrrrr!” in their most terrifying piratical fashion, and suddenly I was at ease. They asked me interesting questions about writing, about pirates and about my characters. There was one question that stuck with me. It wasn’t all that unusual of a question, but it stayed with me for days. The student asked me, “Where did you come up with the character of Philip McAvery?”

For those of you who have not read Mad Kestrel (and why not? It’s available in all sorts of places, so run on out and buy a copy. I’ll wait.) McAvery is a good-looking rogue who could be Kestrel’s dream man or her worst nightmare. Maybe both. People are always assuming I based him on my own husband. Part of the confusion lies in the names – McAvery is my husband’s faire name, which he came up with for a gaming character long ago. I used it in the book because I liked it. And yes, my husband is nice-looking and a pin-wearing, card-carrying rogue. But the character of McAvery is very different from my husband. Philip’s a little bit my husband, a little bit that old gaming character and a little bit someone else entirely. When you see him on the page, he’s his own person.

But it doesn’t just happen with McAvery. I’ve had friends insist they know who Shadd really is, or Olympia or even Kestrel. The thing is, they’re right, after a fashion. Just not in the way they think.

It’s hard to write a compelling novel without characters who come alive for the reader. The characters are our storytellers, our guides through the world of the book. If the reader doesn’t connect somehow with the character, he’ll never care about the story. So writers have to create characters who live and breathe and suffer and rejoice just like real people. It’s not enough to give them different colors of hair and eyes, or to let one like country music while another prefers Beethoven. It’s the little things that make us unique. Small characteristics that you probably don’t always notice are the best. But if you don’t always notice them, how are you supposed to figure out what traits to write in? The easiest way to do this, of course, is to watch real people. Try to do this when they don’t know you’re watching. Look around at a meeting sometime. One man is bouncing his leg so hard he could tip his chair over. Another seems to be listening intently but if you look closer, his eyes are far away and he hasn’t blinked in five minutes. A woman at the end of the table is humming, so quietly you can hardly hear. She may not know she’s doing it. Heck, I have one myself. When I’m nervous or stressed, I’ll start tearing at the skin of my fingers, and unless someone brings it to my attention, I won’t stop until I draw blood. These are all tiny, insignificant behaviors, yet adding them to your writing will grant your characters a layer of texture you wouldn’t have had before. They’re the things that make a character an individual.

I’ve heard of some writers hanging out in malls, sitting in the food courts with a notebook and a pen, making notes all day about the behaviors they see. I’d be afraid of someone deciding I was a stalker, but if you like this method, go for it. I tend to draw from people around me. I’m lucky enough to work in a place with lots of people around. One person I know always walks with her head down, as if she’s charging through the crowd like a bulldozer. She’s perfectly friendly all other times, so this is odd. A friend always blushes during an ordinary conversation with me. Still another person lifts her chin and closes her eyes when she’s talking, only opening her eyes again when she finishes what she is saying. And of course there are two people I know with hazel eyes that change color with their moods, clothing and location. It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, but I lifted that for the character of McAvery because it has always enchanted me.

So okay, sure, maybe you DO know who my inspiration for McAvery was, because of how he looks. Maybe you know me well enough to think you’ve figured out all the characters. But remember that I also took traits from other people to make each one his own person. There may be a little of you in there, too, something small you did when you didn’t think I was paying attention. Be careful when you’re in the company of writers, because you never know when we’ll be writing you into our next novel.

I hope you’re all as excited as we are about tomorrow’s special guest – Rachel Caine, author of the Weather Warden series and the Morganville Vampires books, will be here! *happy dance*

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8 comments to I Know Who That Is!

  • Beatriz

    When I started Mad Kestrel I had to put it down once McAvery was introduced because that moment struck me as *very* much your DH in his rogue mode.

    I went off and did something else for a bit then came back to the book and continued to read. It didn’t take more than a page or two for the real McAvery (the one in the book) to stand up and take over.

  • >>(and why not? It’s available in all sorts of places, so run on out and buy a copy. I’ll wait.)

    I alomost snorted my tea.

    Misty, I get some of my best characters and pathos from the ER. Not the people. There are privacy laws agaisnt that! But the quick visions into people’s eyes and lives. Sometimes it tears at my heart. I carry it around for days. Sometimes I get an entire book out of it. Betrayal by my AKA came from people watching as much as from family history. I’m with you about people watching. We are a fascinating species.

  • I’ve always found that the characters I write from scratch (as opposed to those who I base on people I know) are the ones who come out best. Maybe it’s because when I base a character on someone I wind up limiting my creativity and preventing that character from becoming his or her own person. That said, you’re totally right, Misty: basing a character on someone is one thing, and I rarely do it. But drawing on the quirks, habits, mannerisms, etc. of people we encounter is quite another and enormously helpful in making each character we create unique and recognizable.

  • Susan James

    I just got Border’s coupon today and now I know what to buy with it!

    That’s funny about your husband. My own husband kept criticizing the way I wrote my baddie. (particularly those traits that he found similar to his) “He shouldn’t be attractive! Why’s he drinking wine? He should be eating bugs or something?”

    BTW Misty just so you know, I’m the same person as elfmama on LJ. I couldn’t come up with any variation of my name that was usuable over there so I typed elfmama in frustration and that’s who I am.

  • That’s off topic but I wanted to say I have pirates in my Fantasy novel now. I blame Misty for Halfred ‘Ship Born’ and his crew. 😀

  • >>>And of course there are two people I know with hazel eyes that change color with their moods, clothing and location. It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, but I lifted that for the character of McAvery because it has always enchanted me.<<<

    My eyes do the same thing. They change from an emerald green to a sapphire blue depending on what I wear and my mood.

    As for characters, I may pick out traits, characteristics, or habits out of the people I know. But I do it more out of a tribute to that person. It is my way of immortalizing to myself and reminding myself about that person.

  • Susan, I understand the name frustration. When I first started on LJ long ago, I thought I’d come up with an adorable play on words for my username. Until last year, when a member of Anonymous, an anti-Scientology organization, started posting photos of Scientology installations under the same name that I used on LJ. Yikes! The last thing I needed was for the Scientologists to think I was the photographer! So I quit using it entirely.

    Gabriele said, I blame Misty for Halfred ‘Ship Born’ and his crew.

    Ooh, I love that name. Yay, it’s all my fault!

  • Yeah, he has his lair in Gautaland and is up to a lot of mischief, I’m sure. 😉