The process of creating characters is something all writers must go through. Building a personality from the ground up can prove to be a daunting task! So don’t do it. Build on solid foundations that you already have. Making a character based on someone that you know, or even you yourself, can help you make a more realistic character that you can be consistent with. This week’s Killer Nashville guest blogger, Tim O’Mara, discuses his process of character creation.
“…any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, … events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”
And if you believe that, I know a very nice bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in purchasing.
If it weren’t for actual persons—those who’ve passed and those still with us—actual events, or locales, my Raymond Donne series (the fourth of which, Nasty Cutter, from Severn House, will hit the bookshelves this fall in the UK and January 1, 2017, in the U.S.) would never have seen the ink on paper. Raymond, himself, is based on my brother, the cop, and me, the public schoolteacher. Many of the people who’ve crossed our paths are also depicted in these novels—that’s one of the beauties of “composite characters”—though I’ve been careful enough to fictionalize them enough in order to limit any interaction with attorneys.
“Aggie,” the lead character in Smoked, my novella in the trilogy Triple Shot from Down & Out Books, is based to some extent on someone in my life. I’m pretty sure this person doesn’t read all that much, but even if he (or she) does, he (or she) would have to admit to participating in some pretty shady—and illegal—actual events in order to prove I’d crossed the line between fiction and real life. And although Smoked takes place in an unnamed Midwestern state—here are two hints: it borders Illinois and has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country—it should be pretty clear to residents of that state where I’m writing about. Its rivers and creeks make it one of my favorite places to travel as well as a natural setting for the story.
And although I’m not a big fan of the person who may or may not “resemble” Aggie, as an author I know I can’t have a lead character who is completely devoid of positive characteristics or likeability. I go out of my way to give Aggie a way to justify his existence before he passes from this mortal coil, an opportunity to show the world—fictional in this case—that it’s not all about him, and he does have the ability to put others before himself. I wish his real-word counterpart would do as much, but I haven’t seen or heard of it happening as of yet.
As a writer of crime fiction, if I didn’t have people such as Aggie in my life, I’d have to make them up from whole cloth. Not only is that harder to do, it’s not nearly as much fun. I’m not just talking about the folks who skirt—and sometimes go over—the edges of the law. I also need those who do things worth writing about. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Interesting people do interesting things.” And hey, if it’s good enough for the Master of Suspense, it’s good enough for me.
Aggie, by deciding to break into his ex-wife’s house at the opening of Smoked to get what he wants, has unwittingly put himself in an interesting situation, one which will introduce him to more interesting people doing a bunch of interesting stuff that will eventually fill a thirty thousand-plus-word novella. The fun part for me—not being one who outlines—came from not knowing who Aggie was going to meet and exactly what he’d have to do to come out on the other side. (Or does he?) He may not have had a good time, but I did—and hope the reader will as well.
There’s a famous quote—often and not accurately attributed to the Chinese—that says, “May you live in interesting times.” No matter where the quote comes from, it’s one that all writers—not just of crime fiction—would do well to keep in mind. We do live in interesting times, surrounded by interesting people. It’s our job as fictional world creators to stay aware in these times, and choose those events we’d like to write about. Yes, this will also include using “actual persons, living or dead,” but just enough to keep their “coincidental” resemblance from turning into actual litigation. That would be an interesting time I’d rather not live through.
Tim O’Mara has been teaching math and special education in New York City public schools since 1987, yet he is best known for his Raymond Donne mysteries about an ex-cop who now teaches in the same Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood he once policed: Sacrifice Fly (2012), Crooked Numbers (2013), Dead Red (2015), Nasty Cutter (January 2017). His short story, The Tip, is featured in the 2016 anthology Unloaded. The anthology’s proceeds benefit the nonprofit States United To Prevent Gun Violence. His most recent project is Triple Shot (2016), a novella featuring fellow authors Ross Klavan and Charles Salzberg.
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