At the beginning of a short story, novella or novel, one of the first things a writer does is create characters. Every author goes about it differently. Some may model certain characters on a friend or relative, or someone else they have met or learned about along the way – even a public figure like an actor or politician. Many make themselves the primary source of a character’s traits and actions. Others create their characters purely from their minds and imaginations, thinking about what they want each person to be. And, in some way, most of us create from a composite of our own experience – who we are, what we have learned, and from people we have known. Since every story has multiple characters, they are undoubtedly created in a variety of ways, and from a frame of reference spanning the author’s entire being.
But no matter how you create characters, they will only resonate with the reader once you, as the author, bring them to life. First they must become totally real to you, living and breathing beings functioning within the world in which you have placed them. As Gustave Flaubert famously said, so many years ago, Madame Bovary, c’est moi.
Every character you create can only be real if you give them life. They can’t be wooden figures, rubber stamp caricatures who are simply good or evil, weak or strong, and this goes for both the major and supporting players in your story. All must be multidimensional. Whether it’s the way they talk or walk, the way they dress, the habits they have, their motivations and actions, you must believe in them, believe they exist if only in your mind, and in that way they’ll come to life on the page. Part of making this happen is your ability as a writer, to describe your characters briefly, succinctly but accurately, giving them their physical characteristics and then showing them in action, with both a voice and a role that will enhance your story.
When I began writing Murder on Murderer’s Row, the first book in the Mike Fargo Mystery Series, I gave my detective the name Mike Fiscus. There was no rational explanation for it; the name just popped into my head and seemed to fit the character I wanted to create. Then there was a gap of several years between the first five chapters and my completion of the book. Throughout the entire process my detective was still Mike Fiscus. It was only when I decided to self-publish (see my prior blog: Why Indie. . .Why Now) that I decided the name was wrong. It didn’t have the right ring for a series, for what we now call – and I still dislike the term – branding. Thus Mike Fiscus would have to become Mike Fargo.
A name change might sound simple enough . . . until I found that it wasn’t. Why not? All I had to do was hit the find and replace button and every Fiscus in the manuscript would quickly become Fargo. The problem was that that Mike Fiscus had become real to me. It was as if I knew him. He already had a biography – born in 1887 on Staten Island and he loved the New York City of the 1920’s. At the same time he hated crime and especially murder. He was tough and uncompromising, had a girlfriend who was a nightclub singer and wanted to make it big on Broadway. He liked to crack wise, love to eat his favorite foods, have a cold beer and smoke Lucky Strikes, and had a sardonic sense of humor. In my mind Mike Fiscus had a life and, in this book, he was living and breathing in 1927. He was real, at least to me. And now I had to change his name.
Obviously, I did. Surely, it wasn’t the end of the world, or the series. My character became Mike Fargo, and Mike Fargo he’s remained through two subsequent novellas and next a second novel. Because I’ve written additional books he remains fully alive and fully real. Mike Fiscus is now, in some ways, a distant memory. Obviously, the two are one in the same. The character hasn’t changed. Only the name. But a name becomes attached to your character and is part of what makes him real. So you choose carefully, look for what fits. Once the name is set your character begins to have an identity, first to you and then to your readers. And if you, as the writer, believe your character is real you just may, as I did, find changing his name almost as difficult as changing your own.