Christina Henry — Talking to Characters


BLACK SPRING(1)I wish I had some really interesting, profound statement to make about the process of creating characters in fiction.  I’ve read lots of well-written and well-considered pieces about finding out who your characters are and their motivations and how all those things can make your story better and more interesting.

I’d genuinely like to write one of those pieces for you. I’d like to tell you that I did this writing exercise or that I carefully craft each character and have background histories for all them even if all of that information doesn’t make it into the story.

Unfortunately, my writing process might kindly be termed “intuitive” and less kindly be called “half-assed”.

Take Madeline Black. The heroine of my BLACK WINGS series just appeared in my head one day. Well, I probably shouldn’t say “appeared”. That implies that I saw her, and I didn’t see her. I heard her. More specifically, I heard her talking to Beezle, her popcorn-eating home guardian.

Up until that point I’d had some vague idea about writing an urban fantasy about a grim reaper, but when I was considering the book the main character was always male. Then I heard Maddy’s voice, and suddenly all those vague ideas went away. I knew Maddy was an Agent of Death, which means she collects the souls of the dead for an entity known as the Agency. The Agency is a huge paper-pushing bureaucracy that drives Maddy insane, and she inherited this much-less-than-fun job when her mother died. She also inherited Beezle, a gargoyle who is supposed to watch over Maddy and the house but mostly watches daytime TV and filches snacks from the kitchen.

I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk. You can gather superficial information  – like where that person is from, based on things like accent and word choice. You can also learn a lot about the way they think and their attitude toward the world in general. When Maddy talks you can hear that she’s smart, but she’s also got what’s known as a “smart mouth”, and a smart mouth tends to run when it isn’t always the smartest thing to do. That told me a lot about who Maddy was, and why she might make certain (potentially not-so-wise) choices in a crisis situation – like, say, when a giant monster is rampaging through a north side Chicago neighborhood.

In fact, the more Maddy talked, the more I learned about her – that she desperately wanted to be strong, but that she was terribly vulnerable. That she felt like her life was a box of obligations and she was stuck inside it. That when things change she thinks with her heart and not her head. And once I knew all these things about her the story just seemed to grow organically from Maddy and her personality. I didn’t have to think about a plot; it just unfurled before me like a lovely yellow brick road, and all I had to do was follow it along.


Bio pic (1)CHRISTINA HENRY is the author of the BLACK WINGS series (Ace/Roc) featuring Madeline Black, an Agent of Death, and her popcorn-loving gargoyle sidekick Beezle: BLACK WINGS, BLACK NIGHT, BLACK HOWL, BLACK LAMENT, BLACK CITY, BLACK HEART and BLACK SPRING. She is also the author of the forthcoming dark fantasy ALICE (summer 2015).

Christina was born in New York and now lives on the North Side of Chicago with her husband and son. She sees no conflict in rooting for both the Yankees and the Cubs.

She also enjoys running long distances, eating large quantities of cinnamon rolls, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching movies with zombies, samurai and/or subtitles.


3 comments to Christina Henry — Talking to Characters