Building a Character
The World of My Imaginary Friends
For many writers, one of the most challenging things to do is create characters. And at times, it can be terribly difficult. But I have found a few things that can help to build and maintain characters, often over the multiple stories of a series.
I’m going to lump characters into three distinct categories.
First, Main Characters –
I start with my main characters in place. They have largely been pre-designed before I really get to writing. I might have an idea of what I am going to write, and may even jot down a paragraph or two of the story arc first, but I don’t start the story until I have the protagonist, the sidekick and the antagonist designed.
In order to design them, I will start (in Evernote) with a quick description:
Born: June 30th, 1965
Birthplace: Fort Walton Beach, FL
Physical Description: 5’2”, about 100 pounds, short blondish hair. Same size as her mom.
Personality Traits: Head Cheerleader, but usually shy with people she doesn’t know. She often comes off as aloof or stuck up.
Personal History: Black Belt in Taekwondo. Her favorite restaurant is Darryl’s 1895. She really likes her father’s red Porsche 911. Only child. Married Jack Dixon October 7th, 1983. Loves driving the 1969 Camaro Z-28 she got for her 16th birthday from her father, and she has a lead foot.
Amy is the love interest, and part of the protagonist team from my first three novels. Along with Jack Dixon, they formed the core character group.
After that, I went and found a picture that could serve as Amy… and one for her mom while I was looking. I posted that to her dossier on Evernote. (I won’t give that away, as I think different readers will “cast” different people in that role, and I don’t want to disturb their experience). When I started, I had the physical description and birthdate, along with minimal other info… and the picture.
I refer to the picture sometimes when describing her during the narrative. Other pictures in the dossier include photos with specific clothing sets for certain scenes.
I went through the same procedure for several other main characters… Jack Dixon and Paul Murphy come to mind.
Secondary characters –
These are characters that have a recurring role in the book and/or series. I tend to use much of the same technique, but I generally wait until I need them. That way, they can partially slide into the role they are needed for at the moment. Their characteristics aren’t as important.
Although, some of those characters become VERY important. Melody Grafton (nee Jenkins) was a secondary character, but she has made it into six of my eight books (including the one I hope to have complete in a few weeks). Nicole Dixon (Jack’s sister) is another. She was barely in the first two, but has appeared in not only all of the main line stories, but one almost unrelated storyline.
Secondary character profiles are very similar to the main characters, but perhaps a little less detailed at the beginning.
Utility Characters –
They might only appear once or twice. What they look like is seldom important, unless it is for a specific reason. These are my “Woman at bar” characters. Often, they won’t get a dossier at all. If they do, it doesn’t have much aside from a picture and/or a few general items.
That seems to be the other challenge people have. Coming up with a name. I have a few different ways to give my imaginary friends a name.
First, I will come up with something on my own. If the character is based in part on someone I know, or a composite of people I know, they might get named from that. I’m not giving away who those might be, but they account for a small group of my characters.
Second, there might be a name I just like and want to use. I might hear a name… first or last… and decide that it needs to be a character. I will NOT use both first and last from one person. I have done that once, and it was fine. He is a good friend, and he probably doesn’t even know. But normally I don’t want to saddle someone with whatever baggage the character may have.
Third, I will use a name generator. There are a few sites on the web where you can put in a series of data points, usually year born, nationality or religion… things like that… and have a list of names generated. That isn’t my goto, but works especially well for foreign (to me) names. Aside from Malalai “Mali” Grafton’s first name, that generally doesn’t happen with a main character. Mali was Afghani, and I needed a name for her. That one was perfect, so it made the cut.
Another thing to keep in mind is that readers want imperfect characters. They need to have quirks.
The closest I have come to a “perfect” character is Paul Murphy (antagonist in my first two books). He was perfectly evil. He didn’t have much in the way of redeeming qualities, and he came by that honestly because his father was a piece of work. A few readers have let me know that they absolutely LOVED hating him.
On the good side, I find characters that are too perfect to be boring. Jack Dixon flirts with being too nice, too sweet and too perfect. It takes him a while to pull out his devious nature. He has a good heart, but he’s willing to steal a car and kick some butts.
But my favorite characters are some of my “side characters”. Terry Gates (his name gets changed in book 3 and 4) is a classic example. He is fun to write. Oddly, when he crossed over to Lies and Omissions from the Dixon-Prince books, we really get to see him shine. He’s funny, nice and fallible. Nicole Dixon is another. She is sarcastic, generous and loving. She is prone to great lines and springing surprises on people. She’s willing to kick a butt or two when needed as well.
The bottom line for me is that this collection of characters I have built, especially for my Dixon-Prince series, really are like imaginary friends. They have lives outside of the stories, and they have motivations I don’t always know about. I find that after a while, they have a mind of their own.
In Lies and Omissions, we get to see a side of Terry Gates that doesn’t get pulled out enough in the Dixon-Prince series. To set up a little bit, there is a Nicole (yes, Nicole Dixon mentioned above) that is not in the scene but talked about. At the time of this scene, she is a teenager. The Nicole (different one... Nicole Keller) at the table is a young girl… twelve.
This is how we meet Terry in the story:
A stocky guy walked over to the table. As Nick stood to greet him, Linda noted that the new guy was barely taller than Nick, with violently messy brownish hair, and the kind of patchy beard only a teenager could manage. But he had a friendly face and a ready smile. He looked like the kind of person that could find amusement in almost anything.
“This is Terry. He’s a friend of a friend of mine. He is the one that has been digging everything up.”
“More like, I’m the guy that has had a crush on his friend since like second grade. All Nick’s friends are gorgeous… present company included,” Terry said before blushing so hard he looked like he’d fallen asleep in the sun. “Nicole called me last night and asked me to help Nick out. I can’t ever say no to her. She’s not only beautiful, but she makes amazing cupcakes.”
“My name is Nicole, too.”
“Then I guess every Nicole is beautiful,” Terry said with a lopsided grin. “Anyway,” he continued, sliding a piece of paper in front of Nick, “your guy’s real name is Stephen Dollard… the third. And he has a fine little record following him around. It doesn’t explain why he changed his name, though.”
“Are you some kind of investigator?” Linda asked.
“Me? No… I just like puzzles. And cupcakes. And the other Nicole,” he answered, digging into a taco. “And these tacos. I love these tacos. Linda,” he continued between bites, looking over at her, “you aren’t married to him. Technically, you never were, since he isn’t really the guy whose name is on the license. But your divorce was finalized eleven years ago.”
Terry took another bite as Linda stared at him. He finished and got up to leave. “Ladies, the pleasure was all mine. Nick, you have stunning friends. We need to hang out more, just so I can bask in the glow of the beauty that surrounds you.” He did his best Renaissance Festival bow toward Linda and the girls.
“Terry, tell Nicole I’ll pick up the tab for anything you want, dude. You’re amazing,” Nick said.
“Dangerous talk, buddy. Everything she makes is magical. But I’ll tell her. And hey,” he turned back to them as he was walking away, “I’m still looking. This is a fun puzzle. I’ll let you know if I find anything else.”
In Unknown Caller, Nicole bets another character that her son will kiss a particular girl. The way it is presented is as follows:
Nicole and Chip appeared a moment later, Nicole quickly dropping into the seat between her brother and Callie, leaving the seat between Colt and Lauren for her son.
“Sorry to hear about you and Rachael, Chip,” Lauren said, putting her hand on his shoulder to console him.
“Thanks. It’s ok, though. We’re still friends.”
“If only he could find a young woman that didn’t like him just because his mom is so amazingly cool,” Nicole said from across the table, shaking her head at the “tragedy” of it all.
Lauren’s eyes got wide as she looked down and blushed.
“If only…” Colt echoed.
“That can’t be easy,” Callie added. “There is a girl in one of my drafting classes.”
Lauren glared daggers at her friend.
“I’m kind of hungry… so if we’re done seeing who we can make blush, and how much… maybe we could get some food,” Jack laughed.
Chip leaned close to Lauren, “I think we have been set up.”
She turned toward him and whispered in his ear, “I hope so,” before she kissed his neck just below his earlobe.
“So… Lauren… do you speak German at all?” Nicole asked, her eyes glinting.
“No reason…” she said before looking at her son and unleashing a torrent at him in his father’s native language.
Jack and Colt both laughed. Neither understood all of it, but they had each caught enough to get the gist. Chip blushed deeply; the tips of his ears almost glowing. Colt leaned over to Callie, “Aunt Nicole just told him that he needed to man up. She said that she knew he liked her, and he even had Rachael’s blessing. Lauren is very nice, and he needed to not be so shy… his dad almost lost her because of being shy.” Callie’s eyes got wide as Colt told her everything.
There was fear in Lauren’s eyes as the waitress stepped up to the table. Jack leaned over and said something to her, and Lauren relaxed. A few moments later the waitress left the table with everyone’s orders.
“Lauren,” Chip said, rising from his chair, “can we step away for a moment and talk?” He held out a hand to her, very formally.
She rose and let him lead her toward the bar. Everyone else at the table watched them stop at a high-top table and talk back and forth for a minute before they both laughed. A moment later, Lauren grabbed him and kissed him.
Nicole reached into her purse and pulled out a twenty-dollar-bill. She handed it to Colt. “Don’t gloat,” she said as he picked it from between her fingers. “You didn’t tell him about this, did you?”
“No, ma’am. If I had, he might have kissed her first,” Colt said before Chip and Lauren rejoined them.
Those scenes kind of sum up the characters. They aren’t main characters, but they needed to have flavor. The advantage for me was that I already had backstory and depth for them. And aside from utility players that are going to remain uncredited in the movie… barely above extras… characters need to have quirks and habits and personality. Just like real people.
That’s why I liken them to imaginary friends.