Creating Characters: You Can Always Start With the Car

 

Stock photo via GoDaddy

 

So. You’re ready to create a character.

What does your character look like? Eat? Worship?

Do they exercise? Do they jump up on boxes and grunt, or are they a mall walker?

What high school did they go to? Freak or geek, prom king/queen, or regular Jane?

Do they color their hair? Clip joint, or fancy salon?

Gluten-free? Dairy free? Pescatarian?

Do they eat creamed corn? Do they look at porn? (Obviously I went for the rhyme there.)

Shoplifter, despite having millions?

Boxers, briefs, thongs, or commando?

Tampons or pads?

401K or under the mattress?

Acid reflux, heart palpitations, heartbreak of psoriasis?

Wrist watch, pocket watch, no watch, sundial?

Fast talker?

Lousy lover?

De-canterer of wine before guests arrive to hide how cheap they are?

You figure out all this stuff before you sit down to write, right? If you do, congratulations are in order. You’re about a hundred steps ahead of most writers—Okay, when I say most writers, I mean me, at least.

I envy writers who spend lots of time defining their characters, then put them onstage with ready-made conflicts. You bought me briefs instead of boxers? Are you even my wife?!

Goodness knows I torture encourage my writing workshop participants with character-building exercises. It’s a lot of fun, especially when they begin to see their character as something more than a mannequin with brown eyes, curly dark hair, a cruel mouth, and wearing a nose ring and expensive jeans. You only have to look around you to see that there is no such thing as a generic human. Family members make excellent character models, and the nice thing is that they rarely recognize themselves—Particularly if the character is unlikable. And there’s nothing like taking revenge on a dreaded former coworker or high school frenemy by putting them in a book.

Sometimes all your imagining will be for naught when it comes time to get into writing the story. Thriller and other genre writers don’t necessarily have the luxury of languorous character development because the action tends to move fairly quickly. This is where series characters really shine. A series gives a writer many opportunities to grow and deepen their personalities and habits. At the moment I’m reading Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White. Strike is a solid, well-defined character whose enormous, damaged body looks amazing in a well-tailored suit. And I think he likes squash soup? Okay, maybe I made that part up, but he’s not too shy to engage in a bit of dress-up roleplaying behind closed doors with his current girlfriend. Seriously, I could not have made that up.

I rarely did even minimal character sketches before I started using Scrivener about six years ago. Its template is on the minimalist side, with blank spaces for a character’s role in the story, physical description, occupation, mannerisms, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and background. This approach gives you plenty of latitude, without driving you crazy. I confess, I don’t often even fill these templates out completely. BUT I am one to go back and fill them in as I write the book. I like for the character to surprise me. It’s also extremely useful to keep track of all those details, like when two of your characters hook up and you’re not sure what color your heroine’s eyes are.

If you ever get stuck, I have a simple fix. Decide what sort of cars (if any) your characters are driving. Americans often express their personalities via their cars, and we all have ideas about what kind of people drive a particular model.

The protagonist of The Stranger Inside, my suspense novel that’s coming out the first week of February, drives a Mini-Cooper. Kimber isn’t quite forty, and she likes the option of being able to drive away with speed when she wants to escape her problems.

There really is no wrong way to design your characters, as long as you’re telling the story they want to tell.

What’s your process for creating and defining characters? Tell us about a favorite character that you created.

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

25 thoughts on “Creating Characters: You Can Always Start With the Car

  1. I s’pose my favorite, the one I’d like to work with again, is MacAdam Rhoads, a PI in a corporate security firm, who works on, but has yet to drive, a mid-sixties Ford Ranchero Pick-up (it’s in the opening scene of my first attempt – a NaNoWriMo from a few years back).
    Another way I’ve found successful(-ish), for character definition is “Where do they live? What is it like? What’s on the shelves?”
    In this case, “Mac” continues in the DIY vein by living in an old, infill bungalo surrounded by regentrified, big Victorian piles. It, too, is a work in progress, showing his hands on approach to most things, his inability to delegate, and his outside-the-corporate-box/pride-in-his-rough-edgea attitude.

    • You obviously know Rhodes very well. The detail about the never-fixed car tells us a lot of what we need to know. Sounds like he’s itching to get back on the pages in front of you.

      • Indeed… He’s been rummaging through the toolbox since just before Thanksgiving, and if I hear another crescent wrench ring off the concrete, he and I are gonna have words… 😜

  2. I just finished a draft where the protagonist also drives a Mini. She’s in her mid-forties, and didn’t purchase it for speed–she just likes the car, and the color she picked out matches some other things that are important to her.

  3. One of my favorite characters is Mr. Mayhem. He’s genteel, polite almost to a fault, innately curious, with a zest for life unlike any other. He has impeccable manners and taste, adores his family, wildlife, and the finer things in life. He’s also a serial killer. Oh, he drives a black Cadillac CTS.

  4. Argh!!! “[Scrivener’s] template is on the minimalist side, with blank spaces for a character’s role in the story, physical description, occupation, mannerisms, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and background.”
    To me, that’s a chore I’d rather take on in the first draft. I tried it when I was trying to learn Scrivener, but it led to hair pulling.
    I have VERY rough ideas of those sorts of things for my main character, but I take the GMC approach. If the guy needs to be an older brother, or a middle child, or an only, I don’t waste my time until someone asks him the question in the book. If it never comes up … time saved.
    Eventually, I get most of that done, but rarely before starting the book. What I SHOULD be doing is writing these bits down after I come up with them, because, odds are, a secondary character will be a lead in a future book, and it saves time at that point if I don’t have to go back and see what I’ve written about him. And, every time I write a book, I say “this time, I’m going to do that.” I’m on book twenty-something, and still haven’t done it. My bad.
    Like the time I had a throwaway line about a character who didn’t even show up on the page, and another character said, “I told Grinch not to use his kid’s birthday as his password.” When I found that line when setting up Grinch’s book, I had to go in a whole ‘nother direction!

    • Terry, you sound just like me! Let’s call our method Characteristics of Opportunity. Scrivener’s character sheets are indeed useful for noting things after the fact. But I have to say that if you haven’t run into big problems after 20 books, you’re definitely doing something right.

  5. This is interesting because, in doing a character sketch for a WIP, I wanted to write about a sadistic Kempeitai–WWII era Japanese secret military police–officer.

    I couldn’t really get started with him because I didn’t want to deal with a stereotype. So I wrote something about him lashing out with the riding crop he always carried, even though he didn’t have a horse. This guys was not a nice man, so I wanted to slather him with anger and intolerance.

    He was, in this sketch, watching two ultra-attractive Japanese-American twin sisters playing in a faculty-staff on the island where they had agreed to teach for two years in a boarding school for the children of western missionaries who served on Pacific islands. These students were children of parents who were working in pioneer areas (places where there were no previous ministries had taken place), areas where the missionaries might have difficulty taking their children and devoting the time to to educate them themselves–particularly children who were at junior high and high school levels.

    He was enraged. Didn’t these two girls realize what an important man he was? Didn’t they realized they were STILL citizens of Japan, answerable even to the emperor himself though their parents hadn’t live in Japan for some thirty years?

    And yet, these two Americanized girls refused his invitation to the tea house he had had built on the island.

    So, in his fury, he explodes, lashing out with his riding crop, to the terror of his driver, a low-grade enlisted man, lashing out to beat . . . what?

    A couple of days later, it hit me: of course, he would be beating the seats of his automobile, a charcoal-burning . . . what?

    So, there it was: the whole back story of this man and his presence on the island. A charcoal-run car reflected the lack of crude oil to make enough gasoline for his car because of the American-imposed blockage of oil exports from the Pacific islands to Japan itself.

    It was enraging to himself that he, a relative to even His Imperial Majesty, couldn’t get a gasoline-driven car, and couldn’t get the attention of two beautiful girls from America–though, he seethed, still Japanese citizens–to have dinner with him. THEY rejected his invitation. And THEY would pay for it.

    And it starts when he beats the seat of his charcoal-run scout car. It wasn’t even a proper sedan. It was a SCOUT car!

    You’re right. The car was a good place to start.

    • Ha! I remember Scouts. A friend had one of those ragtop jeeps back when IH was trying to hang on to their personal vehicle market.

      What a great look at this character. So layered and appealingly unique. The touch of ludicrousness in his situation is perfect.

  6. I do a list i made myself. I as like to write little background stories such as how she got the scar on here arm when she was 14 or how getting out in nature was more fun with his army buddy in Wisconsin than it was when they met in Cambodia in the 60’s.

    I always know where my primary and secondary characters live and what they drive, Rachel Short drives a pretty nondescript sedan, usually, but when its a nice sunny day and less than 95% in South Carolina she can be seen driving the classic convertible triumph her husband spent a fortune restoring over her constant objections. However, since his dead now and she doesn’t have to eat her words, it is top down, full speed ahead

    • Writing vignettes of a character’s past is a great idea, Michelle. The perfect way to get into the character’s personality.

      OMG a convertible Triumph. I can imagine her frustration. Second only to the MG in money pit potential. So glad it works out for her. Full speed ahead, indeed!

  7. I write a serial character, 13 books in now. I didn’t know much about him at first, but every time he got a trait, sibling, girlfriend or whatever, I wrote it in a dossier book. This is a must if you write a series! You don’t want to be searching through old books to find out what year he graduated from the academy or such.

    Couple words of caution I would add on creating idiosyncratic characters:

    1. Be careful what baggage you give them. (Series character alert again). If they have family in book one, you might have to account for them later. Ditto an ex lover. Or a pet. In book 2, my guy acquired a cat by accident. Book 13, he’s still dragging that thing around. I think the cat is like 19 by now…readers keep track of her and always ask who’s feeding her when Louis is away.

    2. Be careful of creating tics for tics sake. I get really annoyed reading characters that seem to be so weird or the writer makes such a point of their odd tastes that it feels forces. A big pile of character tics is no stand-in for a truly well-thought-out persona.

    3. If I read one more book about an alcoholic cop who loves jazz I am going to puke.

  8. This is very interesting. In my book, the protagonist is a young woman in her mid-twenties. Though attractive, she is geeky / nerdy and drives an old Maxima. A very old Maxima. The car plays a supporting, but critical, role in the story.

    I also found a couple of characters wrote themselves into the story in ways I hadn’t imagined. They seemed to invent their own dialogue as they went along, and that told a lot about who they are.

  9. Good blog, Laura. I’m a car fanatic, so I think a character’s car is important — Columbo drove a rattling wreck and it suited him. My death investigator, Angela Richman, needed a car. I gave her a black Charger. That’s the police car that’s replacing Crown Victorias on many forces. It’s sporty (she’s 41), fast and affordable.

  10. Hi, Elaine! Thank goodness for Chargers and Challengers. There are so few cars out there now that have muscle car personality and speed. Whenever I see a Charger now on the highway I pretty much assume it’s a cop. My husband has a 100th Anniversary Charger, and now he’s itching for a bull bar on the front, lol. *indulgent eye roll*

    And James Garner’s Firebird on The Rockford Files! This sent me to Wikipedia on the cars he used. Apparently they updated models from 1974 to 78. But after ’78 he kept the same one because he didn’t like the change in the front-end styling. The late 70s was such an awkward time for cars. Just like haircuts.😊

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