Anatomy of A Novel: Part 2: Characters

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Creating characters can be such fun! I start with a rough idea of who they are and why they are in the story’s setting at the particular moment when the story starts, but the details can be filled in later, or tweaked as things change. First I need to find out what sort of person each one is – outside of the story – and what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons and what keeps them awake at night.

By the time I have decided on the location, I usually have some idea of what the story is going to be about. Often I will add other locations which enable me to introduce new story sparks and plot twists. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every character needs something, even if it’s only a glass of water. This doesn’t mean that characters have to be needy, but somewhere inside themselves there has to be a desire.

Important digression here: there is a subtle difference between what a character wants and what he or she actually needs. The characters may think they know what they need, but they are usually mistaken.

I like to put plenty of obstacles in the way of my characters, but often I give them what they want by the three-quarter mark, just so that they can be dissatisfied enough to realise that this is not really what they needed. Their outlook changes during the course of the novel, and very often they go into the third act of the drama with a new goal – usually one with a higher or deeper purpose. Having spent the first two acts evolving their goals and motivations, they are now genuinely in search of what their hearts need, instead of some shallow goal they once believed to be important. I like to mentally whisper to my characters: “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it…”

Sometimes an incident in childhood can have a serious bearing on how they behave in a given situation, and perhaps they will be forced to confront that fear and overcome it during the course of the action.

Because I write primarily in the genre of romance, I usually start with a female protagonist. Preferably one who is out of her depth or away from her usual comfort zone.

I enjoy fish-out-of-water stories where the main character finds herself in a situation she is not familiar with. Either she is on holiday, or working temporarily overseas, or has moved to a new environment and is still trying to find her feet there.

Equally important to the story is a male who first opposes, then sides with, the female protagonist. This man is usually a native of the country or city in which the heroine finds herself. He knows the environment better than she does, so she’s forced to rely on him for certain things. Sometimes he doesn’t particularly want to be with her (leastways not at first) but he needs to stick to her, either because she knows something he doesn’t, or because she has access to something he wants.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Cassie’s desire is to find out the history of an ancient, ornate knife she has inherited from her Greek father. Travelling to the theatre festival at Epidaurus as the designer for a play gives her the opportunity to research that knife, because she has copied its design for one of her stage props.

Unfortunately she gets more than she bargained for when she meets Zander, an investigator of stolen antiquities, who recognises something in her design and begins to badger her, follow her, help her and generally push his way into her life because he too desires something. He wants to know how she managed to design a theatre prop that resembles a drawing he has in his files – the only known drawing of a stolen antique knife that disappeared long before cameras were invented.

Because of my Greek theme, I wanted to introduce other aspects of Greece and Greek life, such as earthquakes. When I was in high school I had a pen friend in Thessaloniki. We had been writing to each other for two or more years when I heard about an earthquake in her city. After the earthquake, my next letter to her was returned to me, address unknown. I never heard from my friend again, and I’ve never been able to find out what happened to her, so the novel is dedicated to her.

I decided to put my character Zander into that 1978 earthquake as a child. I put him and his older brother into one of the apartment blocks which collapsed, and I gave his brother the rather horrid job of sacrificing himself to save his little brother Zander. Of course, this scarred Zander for life – not only physically, but mentally as well. In addition to living with the guilt of his father’s disappointment that “the wrong son” died, Zander also hates earthquakes, and can’t bear being underground or in any kind of confined area.

Consequently he lives in an airy, light-filled apartment on the top floor of a building which has numerous exit routes. But at a certain point in the novel Zander has to face one of his greatest fears – being trapped underground.

The character of Cassie began as a beautiful, slim, dark-haired beauty – also of Greek parentage – but she was too beautiful, too perfect. So I recast her as a buxom, large-boned gal of generous proportions whose only beauty (so her relatives have told her all her life) is her long, dark hair. She doesn’t think she is at all attractive, but Zander falls in love with this statuesque, strong-willed woman who resembles one of the stone Caryatid statues on the Acropolis – the columns carved as women, bearing the weight of the south portico of the Erechtheion. Cassie likewise bears the weight of the legacy of the knife her ancestors left her.

I’m careful about choosing names. One of the best investments I made as a writer was to buy The Oxford Dictionary of First Names. I like to choose a name that sounds right for the character, but it helps to be able to look up the origin of that name and see if it’s a good match historically as well. Cassie is short for Cassandra, who was a Trojan princess whose gift of prophecy was cursed by the fact that no one would believe her.

Zander is short for Alexander, who in this case is modelled not on Alexander the Great, but on the Trojan prince Alexander, who was better known as Paris – the one who fell in love with the wrong woman, Helen, kidnapped her and started the Trojan War. Just to annoy Cassie, I gave Zander an ex-girlfriend called Eleni (which is a Greek version of Helen), and I made her beautiful, of course…

In all my novels, I put my characters through the Myers-Briggs personality tests. I imagine each of them answering the questionnaire that will reveal which personality type they are. I like to match the couples with their ideal opposites so that some sparks will fly during the course of the novel, but ultimately they are assured of a Happily Ever After once they have sailed off into the sunset and the final page has been turned.

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8 thoughts on “Anatomy of A Novel: Part 2: Characters

    • Those DK books really are the best, aren’t they? I have several, and took the “Australia” one on our road trip back in March/April – it helped to fill in the gaps when we didn’t have Wi-Fi or a map or just needed extra info.

      I’ve always hoped that my pen pal and her family weren’t in the city when the earthquake happened (it was a holiday weekend and many people weren’t in those apartment blocks at the time) so maybe she survived, and is still somewhere in Greece. Perhaps her address book was just one of many things which got lost in the rubble…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Campari Girl. It’s worth the effort to create them with love and care because they’ll be living inside my head every minute of the day for probably two years. I’ve had relationships that have lasted less time than that…

      Like

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