Monday, July 20, 2009

Characters? Made or born?

I am giving a workshop on August 15th at the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival. I believe the Festival has been mentioned on this blog before, but for the few of you who missed it, this is a wonderfully unique festival held each year on Wolfe Island, the birthplace of Canada’s First Mystery Writer, one Grant Allen. The Festival is small and intimate. You need to take a short (free) ferry ride from Kingston, Ontario to get there, and your ticket gives you not only authors’ readings, a lecture on a subject of interest to mystery fans, an authors’ panel, interview with the Grand Allen Award Winner, Peter Robinson, who needs no introduction, this year, but you ALSO get lunch and a proper Church Supper. Can’t be beat. For more info and to buy tickets, please go to

Anyway, as mentioned I am giving the workshop this year (part of the Festival, but an additional fee to attend) and the topic is Creating fully realized characters: Protagonist, Villain and everyone in between.

I have been working hard at preparing the workshop, reading some books on creative writing, looking at internet sites on the topic. And it makes me ask the question: Do you manufacture your characters, or give birth to them?

There are books and instructional web sites that suggest you complete a two-page outline of questions before starting to write your book. The questions are everything from favourite food to worst fear; brothers and sisters names to worst enemy. Another suggests you interview your character. Fire questions at them and write down the answers as they appear. Another would have you read a favourite book, and make notes about all the characters therein and ask yourself how your characters compare.

No suggestions are provided as to how to find the time to actually write the book.

I don’t mean to disparage these writing methods – like outlining or revising, nothing is write (sic) or wrong, there is only the way that works best for each author.

When I start a new book, I have an idea of the main character, where she is in her life today, and some of her background that I’ve worked out in my mind as I go about doing other things, sorta like Charles and Arthur Schiff. The secondary and minor characters, they just go with the flow as I write.

My first book with Poisoned Pen was called Scare the Light Away. The character Aileen, who is married to Rebecca’s older brother, was intended to be hard-as-nails, chain-smoking, swearing, bitter and angry at the world. When I started writing the scene in which Aileen first appears, she turned out to be really nice. I can’t say how that happened, but I think it made for a better book. It is through liking Aileen that Rebecca begins to understand that her brother might have changed.

When we first meet John Winters in the first Smith and Winters book, In the Shadow of the Glacier, he is in a restaurant with a woman he is trying to impress. He’s worried about his credit card, he has a jewellery box in his pocket, and he’s hoping to score. I had her down as a high-maintenance date, one whom he’d never see again after getting a call telling him he’s going to be picked up by a patrol car to take him to a murder scene.

No, she said to me, with a spark of determination in her gorgeous green eyes, I don’t think so. And she became Eliza Winters, beautiful, yes, but practical and down-to-earth, his wife of 25 years and the foundation of his life. Anything but high-maintenance.

So, are your characters made – by filling in forms and doing interviews, or born – evolving into the people they are?

I wonder, now that I think of it, if there is a male/female or parent/non-parent divide in this. Having given birth to, and raising, three daughters, I well know that characters, like children, will turn out perfectly well, despite what plans you or I may have for them.

1 comment:

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Born, definitely--except that they're more like friends that I meet along the way. Friends that surprise me with their flaws, gifts, and idiosyncrasies.