My latest struggle with my new book is trying to decide who my main characters are. This is a pretty big deal for me, as I firmly believe that a good story depends more on strong characters than the plot. That’s one of the reasons why my latest book is proving to be such a difficult process for me. I have no idea who my characters are. I have plenty of ideas on the pain and suffering I am going to put them through in the course of the story, but until I find out who they are I don’t have a story.
So what are some tips on finding your characters? Names are a good start. A lot of people use books on baby names to help them choose the right name for their characters. You will probably want to pick one that also lists the meanings of the names. Those can help give you some ideas on the type of person that might have that name. One of the books I have heard about is Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison and Montana, by Linda Rosenkrantz. It includes details such as period popularity, connotation, and the classical meaning of hundreds of names.
Pictures are also helpful. As I mentioned in my “The Outline Begins!” post on June 3, I went to a teen modeling website and found pictures of kids that I thought would be good inspiration for the characters in my novel. I won’t post the pictures here because of possible copyright issues, but it is pretty easy to find modeling websites through a quick Google search. A lot of them are also searchable by height, weight, gender, age, and even hair color. I found pictures of two boys and two girls that looked like kids I wanted in my book, and saved them to my netbook. I also noted a link to the original website and the model profile for each kid. That way I could refer back to it in case heaven opens up and I am blessed with a movie deal.
Going back to the question of names, while I had actually picked out some names earlier, after picking out the pictures I decided to change most of the character names to the actual names of the models. I decided that since these kids had grown up with these names they should actually be well-suited for them, and if I was going to use their images I might as well use their names too. I’m only using their first names, and they are from all over North America, so I’m guessing none of them will have an issue with this. And besides, if they make a movie, they will be the first ones I recommend to play their part. The movie would have to be made within the next two or three years before they get too old for the part, but I guess that can’t be helped.
So I have names and faces. Now I need to find out about their personality. Some authors will get a degree in psychology in order to more fully understand the voices in their own heads. I don’t have that luxury, so I have to rely on reference books and my own gut instincts. I do have some books on my shelf that deal with standard character types and their traits, but those don’t really help until I can get at least a basic feel for my characters. In my last post I listed some of the things I am looking for in regards to character history and personality. The problem is that even with the pictures of the kids I am still unable to fill out most of those questions. I’m just not feeling that special connection with these characters that is needed in order to write a good story. So I took a different route.
Have you ever looked at someone and come to a snap judgement about what kind of person they are? If you say no, I’ll say you are lying. All of us have been guilty of “judging a book by its cover”, despite the many times we have been told not to. While at WisCon last month, I was out walking with one of my friends and we passed by someone who was making a fairly innocuous comment. I didn’t even hear the whole thing, but the three or four words I did hear set me off immediately. Maybe it was the fact that the political tension in Madison has been so high for the last eighteen months, but those few words made me instantly judge this person as a Tea Party Republican and I just wanted to beat the crap out of him. I didn’t know this person at all, I didn’t have any idea what he was actually talking about with his friends, and I am normally not a violent person, but I had to get away from him as fast as possible before I did something I would regret.
So what does this have to do with the kids in my story? Well, I’ll tell you. What I decided to do was to take a long, hard look at their pictures and start doing what writers do: make stuff up. I decided I would judge these kids by what they looked like. I would reach into my subconscious and decide what kind of people they were based solely on how they looked. I would take little cues based on their clothing and facial expressions to decide things about their personality and background. Instead of filling out my little list, I just started writing some thoughts down, and eventually I had a short paragraph which told me a little about each of them and why they were in the camp in the first place.
The rotten thing about this process is that I had decided that the camp was going to be for juvenile delinquents, so I had to give each of those nice models a reason to be in a place for kids that were just short of going to jail. The thing I am most ashamed of is that it wasn’t hard to do. I turned those four innocent children into a slut, a kleptomaniac, a bully, and a borderline psychopath. I’m not proud of that, but the important thing is that I now know who they are.
And now the fun can begin.