If you need NaNoWriMo prompts for characters, look no further! If I need a character who has more than a walk-on part, I also need a face I can see clearly to go with this character. If your creative spark has dimmed to a cinder and you need a few more characters, check out the gallery of portraits from Pixabay. You may rekindle your inspiration!
If you let your imagination soar during NaNoWriMo, you run the risk of a character hijacking your story. Maybe you’ve read about other writers who have had characters appear out of nowhere, fully formed, as if someone has air-dropped them into their brains. Don’t let it worry you. When a character takes over, you may find yourself with a much better story. That was my experience while writing my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow.
My main character nineteen-year-old Rae Riley has just discovered who her father is and is getting to know her sprawling, extended family. Her thirty-seven-year-old father Mal has an eighty-year-old grandfather. A former lineman, Mal is built like a grizzly bear, and since he shares his name with his grandfather–Walter Reuel Malinowski–I wanted them to share physical characteristics too. Personally, I didn’t know any big elderly men who looked like former football players. Usually, I have to see a character as clearly as I do people in reality to feel comfortable writing about them, I had to have some person to fill the spot in my story, at least temporarily, so I picked Clint Eastwood because I knew he was a tall man and I’d seen photos of him in his eighties.
I began writing. Next thing I knew, Walter was in charge.
Every scene he was in he took center stage. As I wrote dialogue, I felt more like I was taking dictation than imagining the conversation. (Yes, we writers hear voices in our heads, but we know they’re not real. Most of the time.)
As I wrote, Walter’s appearance changed. The Clint Eastwood looks disappeared. The man I saw in my mind was as broad and intimidating as a tank with deep-set eyes and aggressively square jaw. And this change was not conscious thinking on my part. He transformed without me realizing it.
What’s more, he was fun to write. His blunt, harsh, mean personality was such a contrast to Rae and Mal. But I knew he was more than just a bully and enjoyed exploring all the facets of his character. I worked him into more scenes and the book benefited from his larger presence. But I had to remember that ,while important, Walter was still a minor character. If I didn’t keep tight control of him–something he would swear no one could do–he’d run amok and change my entire novel.
I wasn’t the only one who Walter won over. Two of my beta readers singled him out as one of their favorite characters. I’m looking forward to including him in my next mystery.
Sorry this post is short, but I just returned from vacation and didn’t have time to write a full post. So here are two posts on keeping journals for your characters. Both posts suggest ways to dig deep into your characters to discover hidden qualities and quirks.
I will add a new lesson I’ve just learned from my friend Cindy Thomson. We met to brainstorm writing ideas, and she asked about two minor characters in a short story I wrote. They are a couple in their sixties and have a poisonous marriage. Cindy asked why they were still married. I had the answer for the wife. She’s a retired, prosecuting county attorney and likes to win. Initiating a divorce would be admitting failure. Now I have to come up with a believable reason for the husband to have stayed in the marriage.
Cindy said to keep asking why questions. Why does the husband endure his wife’s domineering ways? When I get answer to that, ask another why questions based on it.
One thing that always helps me in character development is thinking of real-world precedents. We all know of long-time marriages where neither spouse seems happy. Knowing that such marriages exist in reality helps me build my literary one. I know I am not creating a character or relationship that readers will think is unbelievable.
Minor characters can be tricky. You want them to be interesting while they are in their scene, fleshing out minor characters enough to seem real. But you don’t want them to take over the narrative from the major characters. (If you find a minor character taking over your story, maybe you should consider it for revamping as major character.) If appropriate to the story, I try to incorporate humor when dealing with minor characters. Readers will get a laugh or a smile as these characters help propel the story. I learned this technique from one of my all-time favorite series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Never heard of it?
You’re not alone. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a series of twenty episodes that originally aired on American television from 1974-1975. Before that there were two TV movies. Over the years, the series has developed a cult following, and Chris Carter, creator of the X-Files, credits it for inspiring his sow.
All the movies and episodes deal with Carl Kolchak, a rumpled, wise-cracking reporter, bent on getting his story out to the public, no matter what stands in his way. And what stands in his way are vampires, werewolves, aliens, and other assorted monsters. For some reason, whenever Kolchak starts to investigate a story, he runs into the supernatural.
What makes the series work for me is a perfect blend of humor and horror. When Kolchak believes he has stumbled across an otherworldly culprit, he always does research, consulting experts he thinks will help his story. The show cast strong character actors in those roles and let them shine.
When he finds feathers at the scene of a murder, Kolchak takes them to a taxidermist to be identified. The man gets extremely upset about how people don’t appreciate taxidermy as an art.
Several beheading murders prompts Kolchak to consult the curator of a museum exhibit on the Reign of Terror. While the curator talks to Kolchak, he fights with his assistant as they set up a guillotine.
Hoping to get at the college records of two dead students, Kolchak tries to con his way past the registrar with a lot of bureaucratic double-talk. Only she knows the bureaucracy backward and forwards and can’t be fooled easily.
In all these cases, the writers had to get information before the audience. By adding humor, they made what might have been dry dialogues into memorable exchanges that both moved the storyline and entertained.
What have you learned about fleshing out minor characters?
I am a character writer. My main character attracts me because his or her personality and relationships are ones I want to explore through story. But for me to use this characters, I need to see him or here as clearly as my friends and family. And it all starts with the face.
What kinds of faces catch my attention? After decades of looking for them, I can’t answer that question. All sorts of faces pique my interest, not just ones that could get their owners a contract in Hollywood. I just have to make some sort of connection to a face and know I could build a character behind it.
I’ve found faces in some very unlikely places, here are situations where I’ve been inspired.
Sometimes, I will pass a person in a crowd, and his or her face draws my attention. I know nothing about this person, and I don’t think I want to because I want to put my own character behind the face.
At our county fair, my kids and I were walking through the midway when I saw a teenage boy — average height, 16 or 17 years old, golden blond hair, very light-colored eyes, mustache and chin stubble. After taking several opportunities to look but hopefully not stare, I had a minor character who resembled a female character I had already selected. Now I had her son.
For my short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I needed a man in his late thirties, wealthy, devoted father and sole guardian of his three children. As I rummaged my memory for a suitable candidate, I recalled a soccer coach from the league my youngest plays in. I didn’t know the man, had only seen him in passing, or when his team played my youngest’s team.
He stood out from all the other coaches because he was immaculately dressed. Most of the dads who coached wore baggy T-shirts and shorts. This guy wore a navy blue windbreaker and white shorts, no bagging in sight, and his dark hair was sprayed or gelled to perfection. He looked like he’d just left his yacht. I had my wealthy dad.
I love looking at portraits, whether paintings or photos. I needed a dark-haired woman, near forty, as a villain. While watching an old Disney movie with my kids, I noticed a portrait on the wall of a set. That portrait kicked off a very successful construction of an evil character. (For those of you who know old Disney movies, it’s the portrait of Aldetha Teach in Blackbeard’s Ghost.)