Sunday, May 2, 2010

Some of my Best Friends Are Characters

By Michelle Gwynn Jones

When I began my novel, Daniel's Law, I concentrated on the mystery that would unfold and the legal issues that the book would cover. I didn't spend much time on the characters themselves because when I read a novel I never retain the useless information. It is not relevant, in most stories, whether the characters are short or tall, cook in a well-equipped kitchen or always do take-out, live on this planet or another. In real life I would never use race to describe a person, why should I do it in my writing? However, after I sent the first draft to a few trusted friends to read I was shocked to find out that many people, for some reason, think that the this information is important. Obviously what is useless to me is not useless to other readers, reluctantly I had to admit a serious weakness in my writing.

I set out to learn the art of character development. As with any need for knowledge I began with research, research and more research. Unfortunately there are so many books written on the subject, each offering their own bits of wisdom and/or practical exercises, I found myself on information overload. I weeded through all the suggestions and chose those I thought would best work for me.

While rewriting my novel, and planning its sequels, I have now devoted a lot of time developing the characters and their surroundings. I maintain a character sheet that lists their basic description, education and work history. For recurring characters I have taken the sheets further to include their living environment, personal history from birth and how their lives will unfold in the upcoming novels, always aware that their futures are subject to change.

In regards to the detective, I have fully designed his apartment. The floor plan has two bedrooms, two baths, and a laundry room hidden behind the kitchen. I have gone to furniture stores and picked out and photographed most the furniture, copied pictures of rugs, lamps and artwork which I found online. The decorations are contemporary. The color scheme is black and white with red as an accent color, why, because he is colorblind. However, the only thing the reader of Daniel’s Law really learns about his apartment is that he has at least two couches and a dining room table.

I have found that I really like most of my characters. I want to spend a day on New Grace Lake sailing with my protagonist Rachel Shorte. I wish I could have a dinner out with my detective Winston Spaulding and listen to him tell tales of his childhood. If only I could enjoy an afternoon sipping wine on the deck with Willa Bower I could learn much from her words of wisdom. These people have become some of my closest friends.

To the detriment of my writing time I have devoted many hours into the creation of my characters’ home surroundings, food and beverage preferences and even their choice of transportation. So my question to my fellow writers…and the universe in general, is this…how much time is too much time for character development?


Anonymous said...

A color blind detective? How does he file police reports? How does he describe suspects to pursue? How does he describe the getaway car? Books are published but they are never finished.
I again signed up for this website and they have changed my password and will not tell me what they changed it to. I have done this over two dozen times.

Monette said...

I like the idea of cataloguing characters, but that seems much too organized for me. I do, however find myself looking for memorable chacter traits in almost everyone I meet, including you.

Anonymous said...

I've read many good books and the endings have left me disgusted bcause the protagnist has/has not done something out of character. I feel the author needed to tie up all the lose ends and the heck with the story and the reader. Characters who remain true are the most remebered and loved. So, I don't think an author can be too thorough if their goal is to create a memorable work.

Ginny said...

In my opinion, characters and their foibles are the reasons I read.