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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's the Characters by David H. Brown

For us fiction writers our characters most often come from real life. So how do we fictionalize them? Much of my personal writing in HONOR DUE is autobiographical in nature and reflects the folks I've known who have made an impression on me. It sure helps to have lived a varied life and paid attention to the people in it.


From being the son of missionary parents with a lot of travel around the Ring of Fire parts of the world and with Uncle Sam-- all over Europe and the Middle East before 2 tours in Vietnam, I've been a jack of all trades in everything from day laborer hauling railroad ties off ship at Seward, Alaska to the Director of Security for Loomis when anti-hijacking measures went into effect back in '73. Also drove Armored Car, joined the Anchorage Police force and worked undercover for drugs and vice. The list goes on: Professional Trapper; Dog Sledder; Homesteader; Truck Driver; General Contractor; Minister; Editor; Writer; Speaker; Restaurateur; Movie Producer; Antique Restoration Specialist; Personal Care Worker (which my wife wrote about in her own book "STANDING THE WATCH: The Greatest Gift" which will be out in May); PC Repair Specialist; Computer Instructor; Book Reviewer; Webmaster and Web Designer.


Many of the editors and authors I've known over the years told me to write what I know. So I do. The rub is how to create fictional characters out of all that.


Sometimes it's easy. I start with the memory of a certain person. An image or caricature will appear in my mind's eye. Physical traits will be exaggerated or diminished. A voice softened or given more bluster. Eye color or motion is brought into focus. 'As his soft voice spoke those cruel words, his empty blue eyes flitted about like a termite taking wing on a hot summer day.' Voila! A character is born, needing only to be filled out. In most cases the original person wouldn't recognize themselves.

Other characters come from an amalgamation. If the character is to be strong, I pull those points from several people I remember place them into a setting and fit them together. Weak, then the opposite.


One thing I find tremendously helpful is opening a file on each character and spending time with them. Putting in a few hours or several days with each in the setting in which I wish to be. I build out their physical characteristics, language, type of work they do, who their family relations are, where they live, even to their clothes and the kind of food they like. I talk to them, make up regular conversations with them about their lives. (Pssst... never do this out loud.) I think of the process much like building an intelligence dossier on a subject. I do this until that character is as real to me as the family that lives down the road or the girl I've watched grow up who now works at the deli counter. When I reach the point where I'm going to put them in the story, I usually really like or detest them, in which case I kill them. Either way I know the reader is going to feel much the same way... at least I hope so.


Remember, it's fiction and we're all members in good standing in the Liars Club of Writing. However, much is real and believable, and that I try to always keep in mind.


Find out more about David and Honor Due at his website.

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