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.