Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Creating Fictional Characters

By Pat Stoltey

This post is adapted from an article I published on my own blog in May 2009.

As I reread my second Sylvia and Willie mystery The Desert Hedge Murders to check the e-book formatting before I publish for Kindle and Nook, I’m reminded how much fun I had creating and writing about The Florida Flippers, a travel club of elderly ladies. One of the ladies, Kristina Grisseljon, is the mother of my protagonists, Sylvia Thorn and Willie Grisseljon. Kristina is a spirited gal who loves to read mysteries (primarily police procedurals), travel, and meddle in her children's affairs. The travel club was formed years ago when all of the ladies lived in the same retirement community and all were enthusiastic fans of the Miami Dolphins.

I needed models for my characters to make it easier to establish individual personalities. Luckily, I just happened to have a few cousins and a much-loved sister-in-law who could provide all of the idiosyncrasies I needed. And just for fun, I used their first names for their characters.

Linda Swayble, for example, was named after my sister-in-law. I added about fifteen years to her age, exaggerated a couple of her most endearing personality traits, and then expanded her bio, description, and speech mannerisms. Then I dumped her into the story to see what she would do. She was full of surprises. Linda of the mystery novel was a first-class worrier and way more timid than I expected. The real Linda, however, was one of the bravest women I've ever known. This is what happens when I give my characters too much freedom.

Three cousins were the models for Marianne, Gail, and Diane. In real life, they're sisters. In my book, they're not related. I've assured the cousins I will let everyone know my Flippers are drawn completely from my imagination and not from real life. For instance, my red-haired cowgirl wannabe Marianne, who line dances with the sexy cowboys at a country bar in Davie, Florida, and plays Blackjack in Laughlin, Nevada, is actually a lovely white-haired grandmother and first-grade schoolteacher in Oklahoma.

Similarly, the real Gail would never kick anyone with her orthopedic boots, unless he truly deserved it, and Diane did not really win the lottery and does not live in The Sanctuary in Boca Raton, Florida.

Using real people to create characters in a novel has certain risks, of course. For instance, did I have someone in mind for the killer(s) and victim(s) in the Sylvia and Willie mysteries? No, definitely not. Really. Although someone who knew me in high school thought I was very tough on old boyfriends in The Prairie Grass Murders, which was set in central Illinois where we grew up. But those were Sylvia Thorn's old boyfriends, not mine. Honest.

The Prairie Grass Murders is already available for Kindle and Nook, and The Desert Hedge Murders is coming soon.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for sharing the way you developed your characters. It always helps me as a writer to learn how other people develop their characters. Interesting how yours are both similar and very different to their real-life inspirations.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks, Margot. I remember a Diane Mott Davidson several years ago where she talked about using real-life folks as inspirations...especially those who would make great fictional murder victims (the rude clerk, for instance). It makes character development a lot of fun.