When a Character Takes Over

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.

For more tips on writing characters, click here.

Who are some minor characters that you love?

Writing Tip — Make Your Characters Quirky

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Having just returned from camping with my oldest and 150 other middle school kids, I can swear before a court of law that people are quirky. I had conversations with a girl who is also a writer and working on a fantasy. I saw a twelve-year-old boy ad lib in a skit like a seasoned comic.

For me, inventing quirks for characters is one of the most enjoyable tasks when creating them. Below is a revised version of an article I posted two years ago.

Mannerisms: What mannerisms do you have? I’ve noticed that many time when I pray, I run one or both hands through my hair. Also, when I am losing patience but trying to hang onto a few manners, I smooth my eyebrows. Characters’ mannerisms can be connected to an activity or emotion, they can reveal or conceal thoughts and feelings. My main character Junior in my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers rubs his nose when he’s thinking deeply.

Speech: Are there certain words or phrases you use a lot? I use “Shoot” or “Shoot fires”, an exclamation I learned from my dad. I don’t know what “Shoot fires” means, but I still use it. One character in my novel says “Holy smokin’ cows!” I like the idea of combining “Holy smoke!” and “Holy cow!” to create something unique.

Hobbies: If the hobby will be key part of your plot, choose one that interests you.  Or one you can develop an interest in. I don’t like fishing, but my youngest loves it. Through this enthusiasm, I’ve learned a lot about fishing and find it easy to create a character who lives to fish.

Fears and Hates: Dislikes can be as telling as likes. The mystery series Monk was built around the main character’s phobias. Junior hates to read fiction and shares a dislike of country music with his cousin, which is unusual in the rural West Virginia county where he lives. I’ve been working with a new set of characters that includes a sheriff and his family. The sheriff is an imposing man, 6’6”, and grew up on a farm. I think it would be funny, and humanizing, if he had a fear of horses. It would be especially humorous since his sister and brother-in-law board horses and give lessons.

Food: I may raise a few eyebrows by admitting I am a writer who prefers tea to coffee. When I gave up tea for Lent, I taught myself to drink coffee because I like a warm drink. So I’ve moved from hating it to tolerating it. Giving your character strong opinions on food is a fun way to add realism. The gourmet eating habits of the detective Nero Wolfe made up a large part of his character and sometimes major plot points.

Personal habits: Sherlock Holmes kept his tobacco in a slipper. Indiana Jones wore a fedora. I don’t like to drive the same route to and from a location if I have a choice. Getting to know a character’s personal habits makes them seem like friends. And a character’s deviation from her normal habits can kickstart a plot. Mystery stories often begin when someone notices a character break a habit for no apparent reason.

As much as I like quirky characters, I have to watch that I don’t overdo it. Unless a quirk is critical to my plot, one or two mentions of it is enough. I have my character only use “Holy smokin’ cows!” twice in my novel. Like so much in writing, less is more.

What quirks have you given your characters? Are they based on you or someone you know?

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