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Creating Great Characters
How a Character Is Created • Supporting Characters • What's in a Name • The Importance of Research • Creating Series Characters
How a Character Is Created
Q. I'm finally ready to start my novel. What are the important things I should know when creating my characters?
JANET. A well-developed character is multidimensional, with quirks and flaws, dreams, motivations, and values. A mystery novel's major character--the protagonist--must always want something. That desire is what sends him out in the middle of the night looking for a criminal when he could just as easily be sleeping in a warm, comfy bed. When something or someone stands in the way of your character getting what he wants, you get the beginnings of conflict. It's the conflict that sets up the story. How that character meets the challenge and overcomes the obstacles of the conflict defines that character.
Q. Your characters are funny, unpredictable, often eccentric--and yet they're still so believable. How do you do it?
JANET. All writers are people watchers. If you want characters that ring true, take a really close look at the people around you: that buttoned-up old lady on the train as well as the girl with fourteen facial piercings who hangs out at your local coffeehouse. Watch your hairdresser, your dog walker, your dentist. (Okay, maybe not your dentist.) Begin with them, and then let your imagination run wild. Also, keep your ear to the ground and develop an ability to listen. No matter where I am, I'm eavesdropping on someone--at a lunch counter, in a waiting room, in those unending lines at the airport. I'm always recording the moment. Everything you see and hear and experience can find its way into a story. Just store all this stuff up in your brain and retrieve it as you need it.
Television and movies are another source of inspiration for characters. I find it's difficult for me to read when I'm writing (and I'm always writing), but I can relax with a half-hour sitcom or I can slip a DVD into my schedule without having it intrude on my creative process. I also take my cues from real life. Many of my daughter's disastrous dating experiences show up in my books in one form or another. Everyday life is a limitless resource.
For example: When I was growing up, my best friend was a boy. We liked to watch the trains that rumbled over the tracks behind his house. And we liked to build soapbox cars and race them down the Beryl Street hill. And okay, I'm finally going to admit it . . . it was this same boy who inspired the famous garage scene where Stephanie Plum and Joe Morelli play choo-choo.
When I was a kid I didn't ordinarily play with Joseph Morelli. He lived two blocks over and was two years older. "Stay away from those Morelli boys," my mother had warned me. "They're wild. I hear stories about the things they do to girls when they get them alone."
"What kind of things?" I'd eagerly asked.
"You don't want to know," my mother had answered. "Terrible things. Things that aren't nice."
From that point on, I viewed Joseph Morelli with a combination of terror and prurient curiosity that bordered on awe. Two weeks later, at the age of six, with quaking knees and a squishy stomach, I followed Morelli into his father's garage on the promise of learning a new game. . . .
Old man Morelli used the garage to take his belt to his sons, his sons used the garage to take their hands to themselves, and Joseph Morelli took me, Stephanie Plum, to the garage to play train.
"What's the name of this game?" I'd asked Joseph Morelli.
"Choo-choo," he'd said, down on his hands and knees, crawling between my legs, his head trapped under my short pink skirt. "You're the tunnel, and I'm the train."
I suppose this tells you something about my personality. That I'm not especially good at taking advice. Or that I was born with an overload of curiosity. Or maybe it's about rebellion or boredom or fate. At any rate, it was a one-shot deal and darn disappointing, since I'd only gotten to be the tunnel, and I'd really wanted to be the train.
--One for the Money
Q. What are some of the elements that make up a well-drawn character?
JANET. Above all, there has to be honesty. One of the things that has helped me keep my character Stephanie Plum honest over the years is that Stephanie thinks a lot like me, and so when she is confronted with a situation, I ask myself: What would I do? I'm a very average person from a small central Jersey town where my dad worked in a factory, so I know who Stephanie is and where she's coming from. And I have a daughter who is Stephanie's age. So with all of that, I have a pretty good grip on that character.
People like Stephanie because they "get" her. She's not an eccentric character, even though she does a lot of eccentric things. Maybe her job is eccentric, and what happens to her is eccentric, but you can sit down and you can have a piece of pizza with her. You can go shopping with Stephanie--although you might not let her drive your car.
Q. How did you come up with Stephanie Plum in the first place? She's so perfect--but in an imperfect sort of way.
JANET. I wrote romance novels before starting the Stephanie Plum series, so I'd already tested the waters. And I had a good idea of what kind of a heroine I wanted. She should be someone who was adaptable and resilient, but she should be struggling to pull together all the parts of her personality.
I stepped out of the shower and shook my head by way of styling my hair. I dressed in my usual uniform of spandex shorts and halter style sports bra, and topped it off with a Rangers hockey jersey. I took another look at my hair and decided it needed some help, so I did the gel, blow-dry, hair spray routine. When I was done, I was several inches taller. I stood in front of the mirror and did the Wonder Woman thing, feet spread, fists on hips. "Eat dirt, scumbag," I said to the mirror. Then I did the Scarlett thing, hand to my heart, coy smile. "Rhett, you handsome devil, how you do go on."
--Four to Score
Actually, if you look closely, Stephanie's role in the series is kind of like Jerry Seinfeld's in his TV show in that everything in the story revolves around her. As you get to know her better, you learn that as a kid she wanted to be an intergalactic princess. She wanted to marry a hero. She wanted to be a movie star. She wanted to fly. And now her aspirations are to pay her rent on time, to have the respect of her peers, to have a decent car--and okay, she still wants to marry a hero. She's just like you and me, struggling to be a good person in an imperfect world.
In the end, I simply wanted a heroine that I could relate to--a New Jersey-type heroine. I wanted someone who had the same familial guilt that I did. My entire life was ruled by pot roast. At five o'clock at night, the pot roast was done, and God, don't be late. Stephanie is constantly worrying about that damn pot roast. Her mother is always saying to her, "You gotta come home, I'm having a nice chicken tonight. And pineapple upside-down cake for dessert." And, of course, Stephanie is totally sucked in by the pineapple upside-down cake.
My mother was at the screen door. "Stephanie," she called. "What are you doing sitting out there in your car? You're late for dinner. You know how your father hates to eat late. The potatoes are cold. The pot roast will be dry."
Food is important in the Burg. The moon revolves around the earth, the earth revolves around the sun, and the Burg revolves around pot roast. For as long as I can remember, my parents' lives have been controlled by five-pound pieces of rolled rump, done to perfection at six o'clock.
--One for the Money
Q. How much of Stephanie is autobiographical?
JANET. Stephanie and I share a lot of history, and we have a lot in common. We're both from New Jersey and we both graduated from Douglass College. I learned to drive in a '53 powder blue Buick, the same one Stephanie occasionally drives. We're both Cheez Doodle addicts who have owned a hamster, and we have shared similar embarrassing experiences. I wouldn't go so far as to say Stephanie is a completely autobiographical character, but I will admit to knowing where she lives.
Stephanie is younger and slimmer and braver than I am. Because she is not of my generation, my daughter, Alex--who is closer to Stephanie's age--is enlisted to make sure I don't mess up, generationally speaking, that is. Alex takes me riding on the back of her Ducati, coaches me on clothes and music selection, drags me out to pickup bars (for research purposes!!), and keeps my four-letter word vocabulary up to date.
Q. I have heard writers talk about the importance of "rooting for" a character. What's that all about?
JANET. If you make a character real and vulnerable and kind, as soon as you put that character in jeopardy or any type of distress, the reader will always root for that person to win, or succeed, or make it out safely. To make a character vulnerable, just keep him a little bit unsure of himself and his choices. That's one way of connecting the reader with the character, which is what you want. It also keeps him wondering what's next.
And you don't always have to be on the side of a character to have a rooting interest in him. You can hope that the villain will get his comeuppance, too. It works as long as the reader is involved with the outcome, be it good or bad. It's when the reader doesn't care that he is tempted to close the book.
Q. I am currently writing a novel that a friend loves, but she seems to like the main character's personality and humor more than the plot. Should I try to keep character and humor the biggest selling point or make it secondary to the plot?
JANET. My books are more about the characters than about the plot, but at the end of the day everything has to work together to tell a good story.
And humor should never be your first consideration, even if it's what you end up loving best about a book. Humor is the icing, but character is the cake.
Q. Why did you decide to make Stephanie Plum something other than a private eye?
JANET. It was actually a process of elimination. I didn't want to write about a female private investigator because I didn't think I could do anything better than Sue Grafton--the author of the alphabet series (A Is for Alibi). And I didn't want to do a cop, because you have to have some kind of law enforcement experience behind you. Or you have to be willing to put in hours and hours and hours of research. In short: You really need to know what you're doing.
Q. What inspired you to make your main character a bounty hunter?
JANET. One night, I was watching television and I saw the movie Midnight Run, which starred Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter and Charles Grodin as his skip. And it was clear to me from the movie that while bounty hunters need some skills, they mostly rely on a lot of bravado and intuition. It seemed like something that Stephanie and I could come up to speed on together. I was starting at ground zero, so I chose to make Stephanie start at ground zero. That way I could understand her reactions to things. And I think that the series has a ring of normalcy because Stephanie and I are always at the same place. We don't really know what the hell we're doing.
I positioned myself halfway into the door, adjusted my pocketbook on my shoulder, and lied my little heart out. "This will only take a few minutes. We need you to stop in at the courthouse and register for a new date."
"Yeah, well, you know what I have to say to that?" He turned his back to me, dropped his pants, and bent over. "Kiss my hairy white ass."
He was facing in the wrong direction to give him a snootful of pepper spray, so I reached into my jeans and pulled out the stun gun. I'd never used it, but it didn't seem complicated. I leaned forward, firmly pressed the gadget against Eugene's butt, and hit the go button. Eugene gave a short squeak and crumpled to the floor like a sack of flour.
"My God," [his wife] Kitty cried, "what have you done?"
I looked down at Eugene, who was lying motionless, eyes glazed, drawers at his knees. He was breathing a little shallowly, but I thought that was to be expected from a man who'd just taken enough juice to light up a small room. "Stun gun," I said. "According to the brochure it leaves no lasting damage."
--Two for the Dough
Q. Some people say they start writing and the character tells them what's next. In other words, the characters take over for the author. Do your characters ever surprise you like that?
JANET. NO! What does surprise me is that people say this happens. This is fiction! Your character doesn't do anything you don't want him to do!
You have to be very careful never to force a character to do something simply because you think he needs to do it for the sake of the plot or because you think it's funny or because you think it's hot or it's cute or whatever. Characters have to do what they are supposed to do according to your creation of them and your plot line. The bottom line is: Writers control the story and the characters. And don't let anyone tell you different--particularly your main character.
Copyright © 2006 by Evanovich, Inc. All rights reserved.