One of the toughest challenges for a writer in my opinion has to do with creating characters that are unique, different and that will resonate with the reader.
I have completed two novels and I’m proud to say that my characters are all individually unique and equally compelling. I wish I could say that I have a system but I really don’t. For me the characters kind of evolve when I think of the idea for a new book. When I was working on The Shoebox, Peter and Maddy always existed in a way. However in The Eighth Summer the ensemble evolved over time. Now I have read many books and have been introduced to many characters but in all honesty, not all have been memorable. Not every character you find resonates or becomes alive in your mind. Some times I find a great character and then just when they are growing and changing, it all suddenly stops and becomes dull.
How can you keep that from happening?
Well for me, and that’s the only way I can answer is to keep them as real as they can be. Remember, you are creating a visual, unless you have a picture book, the reader has to build the person you are giving them. They will need all the right ingredients to create and give life to their character. You are God in the writing world. We are, lets face it. I know I am a bit of a control freak. Maybe all writers in a way are. I want to control my story because I’m the creator of it. So I am going to give as many hints, clues, descriptions, and emotions for each so that when my reader is sitting in their comfy chair with a cup of coffee or tea ready to be snatched inside my story, I need them to see a tangible character.
So lets say your starting. You have a plot line and a basic idea of what you want to write about but you just have a faceless character. Someone without a soul. That’s where you are about to breathe in life into this fictitious creation.
The way I begin is by asking a few questions that help me form my character. Here are a few questions that you can use to help you create a memorable character that your reader will be able to see, feel and hear.
l. After you have determined the sex of your character, think age? For this activity lets make it a woman. How old is she?
2. Height and weight and skin color, eye color, hair color . Be specific if there are any scars or identifiable markings or characteristics. Does she have an accent?
3. Where was she born?
4. Who were her parents?
5. Where does she currently live?
6. What is her favorite movie and book?
7. What does her voice sound like?
8. What is her deepest fear? Pet peeve?
9. What are some of her favorite things? To eat, do, go?
10. Married/single/ mother?
11. What is her motivation?
12. What is her inner conflict?
You get the idea?
By the time you have answered most of these questions in detail please, you will have a pretty good idea of who this woman is. Then you can add the character fill ins I like to call them.
Does she smoke?
Does she drink?
Does she say a particular word in a strange way? Like when I say TV I always for some reason stress the T before the V. When I sneeze I tend to actually say the word achoooo! I know, but that’s what happens. Ha ha. I was once in radio city music hall at a concert and in a moment of silence I sneezed. There were friends in the audience not sitting anywhere near me and knew immediately that I had been the one that had sneezed.
Think of things like that. Characteristics that make your character unique and familiar to your reader.
In my first novel, The Shoebox, my main character had a few things he would do when he was stressed or nervous. I added them to so many parts of my story in the beginning that once the reader is in the middle of the book and is reading any section where Peter is running his hands through his hair or pulling on his shirt collar they immediately know without even having to read further that our character is in a stressful situation. These mannerisms are key flags that allow your reader to identify and see the character more clearly. The goal is to create someone that is so visible in your writing that they then become a tangible person to your audience.
Try this exercise the next time your working on a new character. I promise it will help.
I have always loved The Big Chill. I grew up loving the movie and although the story wasn’t as compelling as I wish it had been, there was a familiarity about it that I loved. The thought of friends vacationing together at a picturesque setting and being alone with their feelings was too enticing. Then throw in a loss of someone from their own circle and you have drama and the making of a wonderful plot line.
I remember being on my favorite beach in Cape May NJ and thinking about Tommy and Amy. They were the first characters that I created. I guess you might say everyone else came after. Tommy was this quintessential guy. He was the great friend, the husband everyone wanted and father and I imagined him being this deep and sensitive yet strong character. I’ve always loved the native american culture and legends and stories about american indians and I decided to make Tommy part cherokee. His father’s role throughout the story evolved into something much bigger than I originally had planned.
Being a faith driven person, I always tend to have faith being someone of a force or character in the stories I write. Each of us are either driven by it or driven away from it. So I wanted this presence of Awi, to be one that might symbolize the a superior force in our lives. Although he is not alive in the story, he is reference throughout.
Tommy and Amy have such a beautiful and layered relationship. There is a lot there and most of it needs to be uncovered and dealt with. I didn’t want a perfect couple nor did I want a tragically flawed couple either. I think the subplot of Amy’s insecurities towards Tommy’s old “friend/would be girl friend” is important in the couples journey.
The idea of Tommy and his need for closure with a Maggie Steadman was an idea that was influenced by my favorite television series thirtysomething. Michael Steadman (gave a tribute to the show by giving her Michael’s last name) had saved these letters from an old girl friend who was never truly his girlfriend so he has all these feelings that he never confronted until he sees her after many years. I borrowed the story line of an exchange of a notebook the couple mailed back and forth while in college. They wrote couplets and quoted from poetry to one another. That always struck me as being extremely romantic. Ironically it was the only thing that was romantic in their relationship. So I incorporated that with the subplot pertaining to Tommy and Amy.
I think having them have Gracie (their baby) created a family within the family of friends.
All the others came after.
Although when The Eighth Summer opens up we don’t see Tommy and Amy, we meet Mark. The unseen force behind the story. He is the catalyst for so much that occurs and he later ties them all together in the end without ever saying a word.
I don’t think there is ever a moment that the reader questions Tommy and Amy’s commitment or love for one another. In a way they are the parental figures in the group to all the friends even thought they are all close in age.
I find that in my writing there is always a steadfast stable and magnetic character that serves as the force or conscience to others involved. I definitely did that with Tommy and Amy.
I could say the answer is that I have tangible multi-dimensional, realistic and believable characters who take the readers by the hand up a steep and jagged coarse and then drag them down like a rollercoaster ride gone haywire.
Maybe it’s the circumstances that make the shoebox unique. To lose someone so integral in one’s life and suddenly have absolutely no contact with and no quick and sure proof of a means to find them can be devastating to anyone. Remember people, internet and google and social media didn’t exist. Hard to believe since we are so horribly pampered with everything and all information at our fingertips.
Maybe what makes it unique is the intensity of the love and passion Peter felt for Maddy throughout his entire life. Although his life changed at each stage, he never truly lost sight of what he once had.
Honestly it could be anyone of those. My feelings are biased. I love these forces that fight all obstacles to be together. I’m a great believer in fate and karma and the great God above. I believe that the universe listens and while we make the choices whether wrong or right ones.
Peter chose to stay monogamous in his heart. Maddy had set a precedence for Peter and although he handled every obstacle in his life with the utmost grace and respect for himself and others, his love remained constant.
I think some of us long for the constant, the never changing and the familiar. At least I do. The saying that love conquers al is something we all want to believe in.
In The Shoebox, love does conquer all, even through death. So yes there are many books out there that have painful and triumphant stories of love and devotion, but what is the one thing that sets them aside from all others?
For me, it is when a character begins to take on a life of their own in your mind. When the beings written and carefully crafted begin to take on form and become somewhat real. They find a home in your inner psyche and you are forced to search for their traits in those you encounter and know.
My cousin said to me after reading my book, “Why was it so sad? Why did it have to end that way?
I responded with a simple answer. If it’s not as close to real life as possible then it’s not worth telling. Haven’t we all lost chances with people we have never again seen? Haven’t we all had someone leave our side whether by choice or by tragedy?
We all have high ideals and standards about love and relationships but one of the common threads we all understand is the fact that nothing is perfect and nothing is forever. We are all flawed and imperfect and in the imperfections and through the flaws and cracks, that is were we find honesty. That is where the true beauty lies.
The characters that are not perfect and magnificently together are the ones that we relate to the most. Sometimes there are rare characters that are fragile and human and yet stoic in some way. They are able to take on what comes with dignity and strength. Those are my favorite. Peter is one of those.
For me, Peter was both strong and tender, and although he was torn with his decisions and haunted by his regrets, he always remained strong in his comportment and respectful of the path he had chosen. Both Maddy and Peter were strong individuals who never gave up on the love they both shared for one another giving the saying “till death us do part” a whole other meaning all together.
The Shoebox takes us into the life of Peter Michaels in three different stages. We first see him as a young man in his 20’s finding love. In the second stage, we meet Peter now in his 40’s and as an up and coming architect in the heart of Boston where he is a few weeks shy of his marriage to a fashionable socialite.
The third and final stage takes place with Peter being in his 70’s dealing with his regrets and failed attempts to be with the love of his life.
I wish to stress that the story is beautiful and poignant and touching and not a depressing journey for my readers. Yes there is sadness but there is also so much joy surrounding this character’s life, as in each and every life on this earth has a bit of both.
A few months after the release of my book I received an email from a gentleman from Missouri. I saved it in my computer planning to print it out and save it in the near future. I unfortunately lost the email a few months back when my computer had a malfunction in which I lost hundreds of photos and information. So this is pretty much what I remember from the email. It went something like this.
When my wife approached me about your book and how she desperately wanted me to read it I did what every man’s man would have done. I put it off. But after several weeks of nagging I folded like any one in love with their spouse would have.
I would never have dreamed that I would have been immersed so quickly into what I thought was a book that my wife loved but might not interest me. I found myself captivated with the story and most of all, with Peter.
He then continued to tell me about himself. He was in his 70’s and a retired architect. Yes you heard that right. An architect. What are the odds? He said he had fallen in love with his wife in his early teens and they had been together ever since.
What touched me most about his email was that he complimented me on writing in a male perspective and point of view. He said that I had captured not only Peter’s voice but had succeeded to truly express what someone in his age group could relate to.
He also loved how my love for architecture was apparent and he said it was very believable throughout the story.
Now don’t get excited, I really don’t know much about architecture but I am trying to learn. I have don’t quite a deal of construction on my own farmhouse and have learned just from the experience a few things here and there. I researched a few of my favorite architects when forming Peter’s character and since then have devoured several architecture books. I can talk about transoms and arches and chat about restoring, period correct additions and keeping the integrity of an old federal or a greek revival but I have a long way to go in being well versed in the world of architecture.
In closing the gentleman proceeded to tell me about the love he had for his wife and he confessed that he couldn’t bare ever loosing her even after all these years and that’s why Peter’s story had resonated with him.
I loved that email and it was the first validation for me as a “newby” in to the literary world.
When I first thought of writing this novel it was about 25 years ago. I was cleaning out my closet in my office when i stumbled across an old shoebox.
Among a few postcards, old high school photos and a few old boyfriend mementos I found some letters and cards I had kept and for some reason had never discarded. And as I read through them. . . Peter began to take form.
I have been asked by my readers if Peter Michael’s is indeed a fictional character or is there a glimmer of reality in my story. To be completely honest I have to say. . . (wait for it… )
Peter is not completely a fictional character. He is a morphed version of people I have known and yes my husband is one of them. Peter is my perfect “dream man” if I am going to reveal the real truth.
Madeline Marsden, although a primary character takes a second seat to Peter in my novel. The true protagonist, hero, and main character is Peter Michaels.
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