Creating My Major Characters

How Do I CAST My Story?

By Jeff Salter

First of all, let me say that it’s not particularly easy for me to delve into the “how” and “why” of what or who I write. Not that I’m trying to keep big secrets here… more like I just don’t think about the process all that much.

As others have posted here this week, authors come in two basic packages — with some (like me) falling somewhere in between. The plotters are those who diligently outline everything, build background files on the major characters, sketch out the entire plot line (including supplemental plot threads), determine the arcs of both plot and characters’ development, etc. Many are quite successful at that process and I’m not one to knock it. It’s just not for me… and, yes, I have tried it. A little.

The pants-ters are those authors who get a flicker of an idea and sit down and pound the keyboard for hours on end. They may have a general idea of where they’re going but not necessarily how to get there (or how long – in plot time – it will take). I’ve never been able to be super organized as I’ve seen recommended in workshops and blogs. I have well over 100 “starts” and hardly any of them — to my recollection — ever arose out of any seriously structured activity.

I’m definitely more of a pants-ter than a plotter, though sometimes writing by the seat of my pants can get me into trouble. I’ve found myself merrily writing scenes and dialog and then suddenly realized I was heading down a rabbit trail. Not only would that material have to be culled, but I’d wasted a lot of time making that tangential trip. I’ve also pulled this stunt: write the beginning third… then skip to the final third… and then go back to the middle and try to fit it all together. I do NOT recommend this process! The continuity issues alone will drive you nuts.

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As I’ve noted – on this blog and elsewhere – many of my stories come from a “what if?” notion. Like, “what if a hung-over woman wakes up in the pitch dark space where the Halloween festival was held and she’s still locked in the fund-raising jail?” [Rescued By That New Guy In Town] Or “what if a level-headed career woman has her apartment invaded by her sick boyfriend who won’t take no for answer?” [Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold] Or “what if a young lady reluctantly does a favor for her aunt and everything goes haywire?” [One simple Favor]. In each of those examples, I developed the “What-If” situation before I realized who the character could / should be… and what she’d be like.

On Patricia Kiyono’s Monday blog, I noted a few details about my process, so let me repeat those here:

Usually, I begin with an image or a concept and work out the primary plotline from there. As I move along, the secondary story arcs usually pop up. As far as characters, I start with the heroine and hero. Then I figure out who they know, where they live / work / etc… and who they confide in. After that, I mainly follow them around and listen to what they say. Watch what they do. Take a LOT of notes!

It’s not quite that simple or straightforward… and, of course, that’s not the complete process either.

Though I can’t think of any specific examples right this minute, I’ve had several of these “What If?” notions and not been able to decide right away if that situation calls for a male or female. Sometimes I have to write a bit about what might happen before it becomes apparent to me which gender to place in the central role.

Our Actual Topic

But our actual topic today is about whether we use a formula to create our major characters. I don’t think I use a formula, per se, but there are certain features which I find I utilize often.

Though I have a parade of villains who are despicably different, many of my main characters have certain similarities.

For most of my stories driven by a heroine, I often write her as smart and capable, but (initially) lacking in assertiveness and/or confidence — usually because she’s recovering from wounds of a bad relationship or unfortunate circumstances (or both). By the end of that story, however, she has surprised herself at how resourceful, courageous, and strong she truly is.

For the stories driven by a hero, I often write him as a somewhat solitary, self-reliant figure who needs the love of a good woman but hasn’t met her yet. He often has emotional baggage, as well… and many of these guys are ex-military. Some of my hero characters have a lot in common with the loners of the Wild West, so it may surprise you to learn that I’ve just recently written my very first story featuring a real cowboy. [It’s due out very soon from Clean Reads.] Many of my heroes have a “secret” back-story which sometimes turns out as not necessarily such a BIG DEAL… but he just figures it’s nobody else’s business. Still, it gives the heroine something to dig around for. Ha.

Almost as important as WHO the heroine (or hero) is… are the people who surround them. Many of my primary characters have wise aunts or uncles they confide in, some have close friends (whether at work or living nearby) who serve as their sounding boards. In cases where my plot is comedic or even screwball, I use these “straight” characters to verbalize what I think the reader might be thinking, as in “I can’t believe you’re going out with that crazy guy AGAIN! Are you bonkers?”. It’s also important (to me) to establish who my primary characters work with. Sometimes they have wise and understanding bosses… but often they have clueless, incompetent idiots in the head office… and getting important things done becomes a monumental task.

Questions:

If you’re a writer, how do you decide upon your major characters?

If you’re a reader, what type characters do you most enjoy?

[JLS # 430] — corrected

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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16 Responses to Creating My Major Characters

  1. Since my answer to the first will be here tomorrow, I can tell you that as a READER, I like all sorts of people…except the clueless! There are more than a few stories where the protagonist is so dang clueless, I have literally screamed at them! (I am not talking about well-written comedy of errors, like your One SImple Favor, btw.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a writer, my characters kind of decide who they are on their own. I come up with an idea for a story, and in order to develop the story, the character pops into mind. Whether it’s a he or she depends on the situation the character will be in.

    Like you, I’m a pantser. I’ve also tried the plan-everything-out methods of writing. None worked for me. They won’t work for everyone. You have to go with the method that best suits your style of writing and personality. I can plan out all kinds of things…but writing a story is not one of them. I organize as I go, write down the events as they happen, and take notes on my characters personalities and traits as I develop them. That’s probably why the characters just take off on their own. LOL And that’s the way I like it. They help me develop the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      yes… quite like my own process. And when it works, we should keep on with it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am a total pants-ter. Total! Never an outline. I think of something catchy to start the story and then just let the characters take over. I write mostly “Old West” and have had 70 books published over the last 36 years. In RIDE THE HIGH LONESOME, the first book in my “Men of the Outlaw Trail” series, a woman stranded in outlaw country (I had no idea how or why) comes across a man being hung by a bunch of outlaws (no idea who he is or if he’s guilty of whatever reason he’s being strung up). The outlaws ride off and the guy isn’t dead yet, so the heroine cuts him down. That’s how chapter one ends, and I had not a clue what would happen in the rest of the story. In the second book of the series, (which I am writing right now) the heroine walks into the house after picking berries to find her mother has been murdered. I had no idea who did it or why. She goes for help but when she exits the house a man rides up her driveway and she realizes it’s a man she once loved and who rode out of her life five years earlier. So there she is, in terrible grief over her murdered mother, and along comes a man she once loved and figured she would never see again. I had no idea what was involved in their past, no idea who killed her mother or why, and no idea where the story would go from there. I just keep writing, letting the CHARACTERS take me into the rest of the story. No way of explaining that, but it’s such a fun way to write because I’m as interested in what is going to happen next as the reader is. Makes for an exciting “write” rather than an exciting “read.” I HATE PLOTTING! I consider it boring and a waste of time. By the time I’m done I feel like I’ve already written the book, so now I don’t want to sit down and write it. My publishers (all royalty-paying publishers) know I can finish a story, so they never ask for an outline. I just give them a very basic idea, and sometimes not even that much. They need another book. I write it. Rosanne Bittner – http://www.rosannebittner.com

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        • Jeff Salter says:

          70 books in 36 years — WOW. That’s two books a year! Unbelievable pace. Don’t know how you can keep that up for so long.
          Your process sounds a lot like mine — the situation suggests the characters to be involved in it. From there, those characters guide the author through much of the story.

          Like

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention what I like as a reader. The same kind of characters I like to write about. Characters that are realistic. I’m not saying the situations have to be all that realistic, because I love a good fantasy and things like time-travel, etc. But the people in the stories have to be realistic to me. They have to have flaws, good points, insecurities, boldness when the situation requires it, and not know everything. I like to identify with those characters so I can feel what they’re feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      yes, it’s important to me for characters to be believable. Too many of the characters on TV shows are just cardboard cut-outs and I resent that (as a viewer).

      Like

  4. Patricia Kiyono says:

    I answered the first on Monday. As a reader, I like protagonists who are people I would like to know personally. They need to have some type of endearing personality trait, otherwise I can’t relate to them as main characters. They need to have some sort of quirk or wound, because if they’re too perfect they’re not believable. And they need to be willing to work at a relationship to make me believe that they’re part of a happily-ever-after.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jbrayweber says:

    Pantser, here. While I generally write by the seat of my pants, I usually have a somewhat clear idea of the beginning and end before I start. Not always, but enough to build in more than one plot or subplot. My characters, though, I spend more time on. I don’t do a character analysis or dig too deep, but I do figure out who they are, what they look like, their foibles, and some substantial enough backstory that supports why they are who they are and do what they do.

    For my characters, they all have their strengths, and they all have their weaknesses. The good guys and the bad guys are equally matched. My heroines tend to be strong-willed, my heros Alpha. But they all have some circumstance or trait that makes them vulnerable or flawed or otherwise different.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of my heroines are snarky. I wonder…is that because I write what I know. lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like the way you write your female characters. I like how they all overcome something that is holding them back and they really find their strength by the end of the story.

    Like

  7. Elaine Cantrell says:

    As a reader I don’t like the main characters to be too good to be true. I think a lot of people are put off by characters that are not just perfect, but people aren’t perfect so why should characters be?

    Like

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