Today I saw an intriguing post by Russel D McLean on the Do Some Damage blogspot regarding the creation of characters.  Seems he’d written some PI short stories, which were published in national mystery magazines. Feeling he had something going with this character, he wrote a novel around him, which his agent promptly rejected, saying the character had too much backstory.

So Russel peeled away all the backstory, changed the character’s name, and took away his support network, including his one true love. This resulted in a much tougher, darker figure. Russel saw the humanity in this new character, he got into it, and presto! A novel, and probably a series, was born.

Like Russel, I’ve had characters spring from nothing more than whole cloth. The central character in my upcoming novel, The Take, was born one night in a New Orleans bar. I saw a guy who looked like a young Jack Palance sitting there with a gorgeous date. Overeager, he did everything to try to impress the girl–bought her expensive drinks, danced with her, etc–but all to no avail. She basically blew him off right to his face. The guy had “loser” written all over him. I remember wondering what his story was, what he did for a living, his background, and so on.

I wasn’t even writing at the time, but I never forgot that guy. So when I sat down to write The Take, he leapt to the front of my mind, and Eddie Ryan came to life. As every situation in the book arose, each time the stakes were raised on Eddie, I asked myself, “What would that guy in New Orleans do?”

One night, my girlfriend forced me to watch The Nanny From Hell on TV. Said nanny was up against a family with two girls and a boy, all between the ages of five and eight, with the boy being the oldest. The girls played horrendous tricks on him, blaming him for their own misdeeds, setting him up for punishment, and other awful things. The mother believed everything the girls said, and mercilessly chastised the boy every time, reducing him to a whimpering little blob, while the girls sat by, smiling wickedly. Watching this in disbelief, I thought to myself, “this is how a rapist-murderer is born”.

Next short story I wrote, I told the story of a guy who had these kinds of childhood experiences and grows up a psycho.

Another one of my novels was based on a friend of mine who was a best-selling author. He was very rebellious against his upper-crust family, and this led him perversely into a long life of crime before he discovered that he could write. He never resolved his family conflict, and killed himself as his first novel reached the NYT best-seller list. I changed him from an author to a 1950s rockabilly singer with similar lower-crust family problems, who did plenty of drugs and alcohol before committing one big crime. I found him to be every bit as human as his real-life counterpart, and every bit as tragic.

Anybody out there got any unusual tales of how their characters sprang into being? I like these stories, and I think others like them, too.

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2 Responses to GUY WALKS INTO A NOVEL…

  1. I was in an upscale restaurant once and watched a middle-aged guy come in wearing a Hawaiian shirt come in with a blonde at least twenty years younger. He looked like Central casting had sent up a greaser: slicked back, thinning hair, kind of a rat nose, talked louder than necessary. He sits about twenty feet from my daughter and me and proceeds to ask for a better table, criticize the service, and generally make himself a pain in the ass to not just the staff, but everyone around him.

    I haven’t used him in a story yet, but I’m ready. My “Fragments” file has snippets of dialog and actions ready for whenever I need him.

    Same thing happened when I sat in on a day of a murder trial. One of the witnesses made such an impression, I ran home and wrote out what I remembered right away. Haven’t used him yet, either, but he’s in the bank.

  2. Both those guys will probably turn up in your writing, Dana. These are exactly the kinds of incidents that produce memorable characters.

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