Saturday, September 6, 2008

Writing Lessons: Creating Character, Part 2

Sometimes, it takes awhile to know and understand your character. Yet, understanding is critical to loving your character and making your character believable.

Today, I was working on HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES — and I had an “ah-hah” moment. This is the third book I’m writing about Marie Laveau’s descendent, Dr. Levant, yet, today, I discovered something new about her.

Characters are like people! You think you know them—then, all of a sudden, they do something, say something shocking or surprising!

Getting deep into the bones of your character can be fun, intriguing. I especially love it when characters don’t do what I’ve planned as an author—like Anna Douglass in DOUGLASS’ WOMEN. I didn’t know she was going to invite Frederick’s mistress to tea!!! I was shocked.

Before characters start living on their own—telling YOU what to write—you, as the author, must begin with the basics.

What is your character’s name? Tamara? Tamara is far different from a Barbara, a Lorraine or a Lanesha. Jerome is unlike a Terrence, a Bobby, or a James.

A name makes a character real. So does history. Write down details about your character’s past—when and where was she born? What are her parents’ names? Is she the only child, eldest child, or baby of the family?

Write down details about your character’s current life—is she married? Does she practice a faith? What’s her profession? Hobbies?

What is her typical day like? Chances are you’ll be writing about an untypical day—so you need to decide what your character normally does. On Thursday, does your character eat at Jones’ Deli? Does she take a bus ride with three transfers to work? Think of all the interesting things that could happen if the Deli was closed or she missed her bus!

What does your character look like? Don’t list details as if you’re writing a police report. What features, mannerisms make your character recognizable, unforgettable.

Visualizing your character—knowing their normal patterns, habits and history all set the stage for you, as a writer, to disrupt and turn their story-lives, upside down. That’s when your real tale begins! Your characters will change and evolve—don’t worry, let them. But, create your starting point. Breathe first life into your characters.


Julia said...

As I go back and re-read my ms I am learning things such as you teach in your Writing Lessons. I am understanding this "feeling" that tumbles around in my gut, making me anxious as it seeks its way up into my chest pricking me, encouraging me to continue conversing with my characters. At first I thought I was becoming too invloved in the "fantasy" of it all, now I realize it is "normal" to really embrace them, love them, rejoice and cry with them. Writing has always been my passion, but I was afraid of failure. Until I began calling out the names of my Ancestors, and they began to answer. The words began to tell a story and their faces, lives, habits and behaviors began to breathe.


Jewell Parker Rhodes said...


Oh, yes, the characters become very real – you are birthing them as a writer. The characters, in turn, are giving you life experiences you never would have had.

I find characters might my life bigger, my heart broader – I am more human because of them.

Re: failure – because you CARE about writing, you get afraid. I still do!

I am so happy that the ancestors are with you!

To all writers, you must nurture yourself and your creativity. Do what you can...when you can...and honor the process.


akarin said...

Dr. Rhodes, I just recently found your book Voodoo Season. I love New Orleans, and the book just was an immersing experience. I loved the characters, the history. I just received Yellow Moon today, and decided to look in the Internet to see if you were writing something new with these characters. I am so happy to hear you are writing a third installment in this series. Please keep writing - I can't wait to read some of your other works. I am ordering Magic City and Porch stories next. Thank you for such wonderful stories!