Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Judith Lachance-Whitcomb

When I read a book, if it is a good one, I fall in love with the characters. We all do. We even begin to care about the bad guys. When the book ends, I don’t want to leave those folks I’ve gotten to know through the author’s ability to bring them to life.  I’m realizing that I get the same pleasure from my own characters that develop along with the story.
I’ve always felt guilty because I don’t do character studies, at least not in an organized way. I don’t have a card file with descriptions of characters and locales. I don’t have character sheets, and even on my Scrivener I’m not using the character sheet template. As my characters grow, I construct their sketches based on what they’ve revealed of themselves.  I’ve come to realize, however, that there is a file box tucked somewhere in my grey matter. As a great observer of people, risking being arrested as a stalker, I can watch people for hours. In a restaurant, I eagerly try to hear their conversations. Watching people while at the beach, I note the variety of shapes, sizes, etc. of their physique and the bathing gear they use to enhance (or not) those physiques. Looking at two people having a conversation that I can’t hear, I make up stories in my mind of what is going on based on their body language. So, it’s not that I don’t pay attention to character traits, I just don’t do what many how to write sources suggest I do with developing a character study.

I find that my characters develop with the story. When I begin a story, I have a situation or general plot in mind. I know where I want to be at the end of the story. I have a general idea of who the main characters are, but many of the details emerge as they travel through the storyline. Minor characters are even less defined as we begin our adventure together.  

Sometimes my research brings the character to life. One story I wrote  was about an adventurous little Emperor penguin. He gets lost and ends up in the North Pole.   Even though the story is fiction, I wanted it to let youg readers know penguins are only in the southern hemisphere. I had the character penguin, Fidget,  firmly in my mind but I needed another animal to help  him figure out where he was.  I wanted an animal who would be familiar with both poles.  A little research and I found out about the Arctic Tern that travels between them.  The description of the actual bird helped me develop Tipper . You met both characters through their picture at the beginning of this blog.

Currently I’m working on a fiction story about Queen Guinevere (of Camelot) when she was a young girl. In the story an unlikely friendship develops between her and Emma, who is the complete opposite in position, manner, dress, and certainly grace. The story could be called historical fiction but I’m afraid it isn’t quite. To begin with, it’s hard to gather actual facts on the Arthurian period that seems to be mostly fiction as it stands. Also, the time of the story would be before the middle ages. I find very little information of that time, or at least information that would make my story more interesting. For example, castles weren’t what I was lead to believe as I read and watched all those books, plays (I loved “Camelot”), and movies. They were more like earthen and wooden rather than huge and stone structures. So, for the sake of my story, I’ve pushed Guinevere and Emma into the middle/later periods of the Middle Ages.
Anyway, back to my point. I wanted a very minor character to be Guinevere’s teacher. In truth, she probably wouldn’t have had one but my story needed it. There are many choices for a character like that: old, wise, young, handsome, brilliant, snobbish. Other than being a minor male character, he had very little definition in my mind. Needing a name for him, I began by going to my reference sheets (which I can conveniently store on my Scrivener) that contain first and surnames that would be common during the middle ages. I spent a good half an hour or more playing around with various combinations. I finally landed on one that screamed to me, “I am that teacher character.” The name?  It’s Umfrey Urry.  Isn’t that delicious? It was a name that could thoroughly confuse Emma and immediately shaped his looks and manner for me. As I introduced him to the story, he came alive in his snobbish dead-pan way. He makes Guinevere, Emma, and myself laugh – behind his back, of course.  Here is the paragraph when he enters the story:
Stop this commotion, I say!”   A path appeared through the crowd from the door to the interior of the castle. The path was made by someone or something whose long, upturned nose appeared before the rest of him did. “I, the Royal Teacher, must prepare the lessons for Her Majesty - the Princess!”  The mouse voiced speaker, now clearly in the center of the circle and the center of attention made sure his complaint was accompanied with a snobbish swish of the long, black curls that hung well below his bony shoulders. “Her Majesty will be furious when you have caused her lessons not to be ready for her!”

I will continue to seek out advice about how to write from as many sources as I have time to find. What I’m learning, though, is that there is no cookie cutter “how to write”. Our approach to writing has to be the one that works for us. I can try the suggestions I come across but in the end I have to find the ones that work for me. One of my current mentors is Stephen King through his book, On Writing. I was pleased to read his take on character development and especially resonated with this statement, “For me, what happens to characters as the story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along…” That works for me.

I’m not a published writer, at least not in the way that some folks I’ve met in writing groups consider “published.” I have a number of educational works that were published and a chapter in a book. I have my fiction work in group publications like Hoosier Horizons and the Edge of the Prairie. That’s it. But I am a committed writer. As I wrote about in a previous blog, I write because I can. I write because I enjoy the adventures my characters and I experience. I write because I love my characters.

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