Thursday, August 7, 2014

Saving Miguel - Creating the Characters - Part Uno

Click this Link for Saving Miguel
For this blog posting, I want to discuss the creation of characters in novels. Let me rephrase that. I want to discuss the creation of interesting and believable characters in novels. What do I mean?

We have all read novels where the characters literally jumped out of the pages of the book and pulled us into the story. These types of novels are hard to find. Most of us have also read novels where the characters were as wooden as trees in a forest. The characters in these novels did not pull us into the story, instead, they made us want to close the book and hurry to take it to the used book store.
I have only written four novels (soon to be five) so I don't want you to think that I am an expert on writing or character development in novels. I am not. I am still a novice.  I am still working hard to improve my ability to bring depth and breadth to my characters in my novels. That's why it is so important for me to focus on a process for character creation and development. I am a country mile away from achieving a standard where I can even sit at the feet of such great fiction writers as Stephen King or Dean Koontz. For anyone who has read their novels, the characters seem to explode from the pages, grabbing readers by the nape of the neck and dragging them back into the plot of the book. Before a reader of King and Koontz even knows it, they are participating in the story as one of the characters. THAT is the place where I want my characters to be!
So, how do these great writers create these believable characters? I am sure every novelist has his or her own formula, but since this is my blog, we are going to discuss how I do it; right, wrong or indifferent.    

Characters! Those little jewels that supply life to any novel. If done right, they transform pages of paper into a reader’s involvement in the day-to-day lives of the characters. The reader becomes a part of the character’s life, not the other way around. From a novelist’s perspective, where do these characters come from? I assume that almost every novelist gets these characters from pretty much the same place. Most of the characters I have created are composites of people I have known or studied, either directly or indirectly. I also believe that most novelists inject portions of their beliefs and personalities into certain characters in every novel. I know that more than a few of my characters have a bit of me in them.   

In most good novels, a variety of characters is the spice of life. The last thing any novelist strives
Could this be the character of Volk from Saving Miguel. Read
the novel and create your own Volk. Courtesy Sons of  Anarchy.
for is a bunch of characters that act like zombies walking down the road, unless of course the novel is about zombies. Characters should have different behaviors and personalities. Then, it is up to the novelist to integrate these various characters into the storyline of the novel. Just as in real life, some characters are going to be more interesting than others and some characters are good while others are evil. Creating a novel is like creating seafood gumbo. When we make a delicious seafood gumbo called a novel, a variety of ingredients is essential and if we want the taste of the novel to be rich and fulfilling like our gumbo, a variety of characters is essential.

One of my all-time favorite character creations is in my novel, Saving Miguel. Volk is this character’s name. He was built from a composite of people I have known, watched, or read about. Volk's character in the book would be easy to stereotype so I went out of my way to make sure that did not happen. The physical attributes of Volk were modeled after a country and western singer, believe it or not. Any guesses who that country and western singer could be? Sorry, I plead the fifth. 

The first thing I try to do when I introduce a new character in one of my novels is to provide the reader with a little background information as to how that character fits into the overall plot of the story. Following are a few excerpts from Volk’s first appearances in Saving Miguel Let’s see if you can understand from this paragraph how Volk fits in to the overall plot of the book.  

The Chapter President of the Skulls was a man named Johannes Pudine or Volk as his fellow club members called him. Johannes Pudine began his career in the early 21st century as a pledge in an infamous, global outlaw motorcycle club. Through brains and brawn, Volk rose through the ranks of that motorcycle club until the world’s economic collapse occurred. Volk took the collapse as a good opportunity to break off from the larger motorcycle club and form a much smaller, regional organization he named the Skulls. The smaller, less political organization allowed Volk to move the organization into different business opportunities without having to go through the politics and bureaucracy of a global organization. As chapter president, Volk not only focused on the bread-and-butter illegal businesses, but he had enough business savvy and foresight to invest in legitimate enterprises, such as farms, ranches, and feedlots. Ironically, the Skulls’ biggest customer for beef, pork, fruit, and vegetables was the Security Service at Camp Randolph. To get in the door of the Security Service with the Skull’s legitimate businesses, Volk had bribed several influential people in the S.S., but when the Skulls proved they could effectively manage the businesses, Volk slowly weaned these people away from bribes. The business with Camp Randolph grew exponentially and allowed the Skulls the hard currency to expand into other legal businesses. Volk wanted his club out of the illegal activities altogether but it would take time. His biggest frustration in growing these businesses was that few people had anything worth trading, so if he wanted to sell their goods, the S.S. was their only customer.

Are these people the Skulls from Saving Miguel? I don't
know, read the novel and YOU decide. Courtesy 81?

What do you think? Do you at least have a general idea how Volk and the Skulls tie into the story of Saving MiguelNow, that the introduction is done, it is time to give the reader an idea of Volk's physical attributes, i.e. what does the character physically look like.

Volk was in his mid-fifties. His long jet-black hair and beard of yesteryear had turned from coal to salt. He stood about six foot, four inches and weighed around two hundred fifty pounds. Volk had always been able to handle himself in the violent encounters that were part of the culture of an outlaw motorcycle club. Even as he became older, his legendary temper was always boiling under his calm exterior, but now he was wise enough to handle things less violently, or at least let his subordinates handle the violence.

There, we understand a little bit about the physical makeup of Volk. He is no one to mess with, obviously. We now know how Volk fits into the story and some of his physical characteristics. We will let the reader now fill in the blanks of Volk's appearance. It is now time to inject Volk into the story.  

Tonight, Volk was sitting at a table in an old south side restaurant that served as his headquarters. The restaurant was quiet except for the steady hum of an electric generator on the outside of the building. The S.S. had offered to run electricity to his headquarters, but Volk declined the offer.
He did not need the Security Service to know where his headquarters were and besides, he moved his headquarters routinely.

Volk was waiting for his six captains to show up to a meeting that he had arranged. He was concerned about the reports that the S.S. had taken over several sectors on the north side of the city and that they were continuing to expand into other sectors. He wanted to know what his captains knew and if there were any opportunities or threats for the Skulls."

Dialogue is the most powerful tool a novelist has to work with. Dialogue is the heart and soul of character development. Through dialogue, the reader really gets to know a character. Just like when we meet someone and get to know them by talking to them, the reader gets to know the characters through their dialogue with others. They begin to understand the character's thoughts, beliefs, motives, and behavioral tendencies through dialogue. Below is where dialogue starts to build a connection between Volk and the reader.    

The last captain finally showed up and Volk did not wait for him to sit down before he called the meeting to order. Volk asked what the captains had heard about the invasion in the north part of the city and then he sat back and listened. The captains had all kinds of information about the invasion, but it was all second-hand information, rumors, and speculation. Volk held his temper in check as he listened to the unsubstantiated hearsay coming out of his captains’ mouths. This is like listenin’ to an old women’s sewing circle! Volk could not rely on anything his captains told him without collaboration of the information. Volk watched his captains yap and noticed that one of his captains, at the end of the table, was not saying a word.

“You’re awful quiet, Joey,” Volk said to the captain at the end of the table.

“Just listenin’,” Joey replied.

“Listenin’?” Volk asked, glaring at him. “This is not listenin’ time, if you know somethin’, spill it.”

“Well I was waitin’ until these guys got through their tall tales,” Joey answered.

“Well they’re done, if you don’t mind sharin’ your captivating insight,” Volk declared, giving each captain a stare.

“What do you want to know?” Joey asked.

“Part of your territory is around that hospital that just got blown up, the S.S. is as thick as gnats there; what are you hearin’?” Volk replied, unhappy with having to pull information out of his youngest captain, one thread at a time.

Even in this very short section of dialogue, the reader gets an idea how Volk runs things on the ‘south side of the city’. There is no better place to learn about a character than to listen to them talk and interact with others, including the reader.

To summarize my process for character development. First, I introduce the character into the overall story and plot, i.e. how do they fit in. Then I give the readers just enough of a physical description to allow them to fill in the rest. Finally, I inject the character into the overall story through their dialogue. This is where readers learn the most about a character, just by the way they talk and interact with others. There is no reason that a novelist would have to go through the specific order above. The order could be changed to fit the circumstances, but I would recommend all three elements.   
I hope you enjoyed this post and I look forward to hearing how you like my novel Saving Miguel, which by the way is available at better booksellers around the globe. Click the Link to Join the World of Saving Miguel


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