Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Is The Color of My Character's Eyes Again???

Writing is a bitch. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It is so much more than sitting down and putting pen to paper, or fingers to a keyboard. Think about how many people have told you that they are writing a book, but have never finished?


It's that hard.

It's not just the whole process of transferring a story idea from your imagination to the written word, but also making it a compelling read for your future readership. There are a lot of components to a good story, but today's blog is about characters.

You can have a great story, but if your character doesn't come to life in the minds of the readers, the story will most likely fall flat. As coincidence will have it, Rosemary on Genreality tackled the subject of characters just a few weeks ago when I first started composing this post.

To quote the first comment:
Charlene Teglia
I pretty much only keep books for character. If I don’t connect with the characters, who cares what happens to them?

This is exactly my sentiment. If a character doesn't feel alive or sympathetic to the reader, what is the point? This is especially the case in horror. Where suspense and the horror element are vitally important to keeping the reader on the edge, they must invest their emotions in the characters.

People often ask who my characters are based on. I think it's a natural assumption that a writer must be basing their characters on people they know (or themselves), but this isn't the reality at least in my case. A lot of my characters just pop into my head at unexpected moments.

I will give you an example:

Maria Martinez appeared in my mind unexpectedly one day. I was at work, thinking about how hot it was outside and how glad I was Texas doesn't have rolling blackouts when I saw in my mind a woman sit up in bed, her long hair falling over one shoulder as she listened to the power go out in her section of her city.

From the rough draft of her story:

The fan sputtered than died as the rolling blackout hit her section of the city. With a groan, she peeled the covers from her damp body and sat at the edge of the bed. Her silky black hair fell over one shoulder, settling over one bare breast. The heat was already rising in her small flat. The metal walls and high windows made the narrow room claustrophobic and once the power cut out, stifling.

I quickly wrote down what I "saw" in my mind's eye and that is the opening paragraph of my brand new novel. It wasn't until I was able to sit down and keep writing that I found out what her name was, where her city was, who she was in bed with, and the cause of the rolling blackouts.

This sort of character inspiration moment has happened to me multiple times. I see the character in an compelling setting and I dive in wanting to know more.

In the past, I kept loose notes on characters or story scenarios as they came to me, but I lost a lot of them. During our latest move, I found some scraps of scenes, characters, and stories I had forgotten. Thankfully, I started using yWriter a few years ago and it has helped me tremendously with keeping my notes of inspiration in a safe place.

Using the Character database, this is how I built a character file for Maria Martinez.

The first tab up is basic. It's about her name and description. Sometimes I only have a first name when I start a character, so I just fill in the short name. If I have a full name, I plug that in. If there is a nickname, I place it in Alternative. Since this is the start of creating Maria's biography, I don't know if she has a nickname yet. I can come back later and change it if she does.

I write in a general physical description so I can remember her exact appearance without having to go back through the pages already written, desperately trying to find out what color her eyes are.

Also, she is a major character, so I have clicked that option.

Sometimes a character's biography comes swiftly to mind. Other times it comes out it spurts as I write. I try to update the biography as I work so I have a quick reference the further I get into the story.

Maria's biography came to me around 3,000 words into the novel. I find the more fully immersed I am in the writing, the clearer I "see."

Under notes I usually place personality traits or quirks. Also, I might add any notes on the development arc for the character if I have a clear vision of where the character is headed during the course of the story.

Finally, I add a picture to the database so I have a physical representation of the character. In this case, it is Maria created using the Sims 2 games. When I started playing Sims 2, I had a lot of fun with the actual game. Then, one day, I created one of my characters on a whim. Seeing my character on the screen looking eerily close to how I imagined her was a real inspiration. Since then, I have been making most of my characters in the Sims 2 character generator.

Sims 2 version of Maria Martinez

I have read about other authors clipping photos out of magazines or printing them from the internet so they have a frame of reference for their characters. Having a visual is a neat way of keeping connected to your character. Honestly, there are times in the process when you can lose your way and having visual clues back to your story are very helpful.

So how did Maria pop into my head? In some ways it feels like magic, but looking into my past I see the seeds of her inspiration. Growing up one of my favorite people was a friend of my mother's from the Dominican Republic. She was one of the most beautiful, classy, and stylish women I had ever seen in my life. Also, she was one of the kindest, warmest, most considerate people I have ever encountered. Her life was not easy in any regard, but she had a strength about her that was inspiring. Widowed extremely young, she had difficulty letting go of her husband. I remember his picture on her bureau and how lovingly she had arranged mementos around it. I can see how my mother's friend inspired Maria's great love for Dwayne and her strength of will.

Yet, they are not the same person and far removed from each other in personality.

Every day writers absorb their surroundings, storing away information in the depths of their minds, tiny seeds germinating to become worlds, characters and stories. Those little seeds can be anything from the distinctive voice of someone you meet, the gray eyes of someone you see on a plane, the laugh of a woman after a car accident, etc...etc... I'm not always sure where my characters come from, but I am glad when they arrive to tell their story.


  1. I really liked how you delved into the specifics of YWriter and how it's helped you create and manage characters. I HATE it when I forget a character's eye color, then have to randomly type in 'green/brown/blue' on the 'find' feature to find what color said character's eyes are. I tried using YWriter, but it wasn't much help in regards to the actual writing process--at least, it wasn't for me. I did like how easy it was to manage once you read the guide though, so I guess that's all that counts.

    This is a great post, Rhiannon. I really liked it.

  2. I recently visited your blog. It is a very interesting one. Keep it up.


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