September 12 – 18: Creating characters

What do you call upon to create your characters? Life experience? People you’ve encountered? Other fictional characters? Your own inner-psyche? Archetypes?

Join ITW members C. C. Harrison, CE Lawrence, Bob Levinson, S. Eric Wachtel, Camille Minichino, and Marc Cameron for another fascinating Thriller Roundtable discussion!


C. C. Harrison’s award-winning books include, THE CHARMSTONE, a mystery set on the Navajo Indian Reservation, that was called “An important book!” by Tony Hillerman.  Next came RUNNING FROM STRANGERS, and SAGE CANE’S HOUSE OF GRACE AND FAVOR written as Christy Hubbard), which was honored at the Aspen Institute as a finalist in the 2010 Colorado Book Award.  PICTURE OF LIES will be released October 2011. She is currently working on CEMETERY TREES, a Michigan mystery.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Screams and Silent Victim are the first two books in her Lee Campbell thriller series.  Silent Kills comes out later this year.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge.

Robert S. Levinson, bestselling author of nine novels, among them the newly published A Rhumba in Waltz Time, and The Traitor in Us All, In the Key of Death, Where the Lies Begin, and Ask a Dead Man. Regular contributor to Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen mystery magazines. An EQMM Readers Award selection three times. A Derringer Award winner for a Hitchcock story, “The Quick Brown Fox.” Currently nominated for a Shamus Award of the Private Eye Writers of America. Stories in “year’s best” anthologies six consecutive years. Various novels and original short story collections available at Amazon Kindle, other e-book locations.

S. Eric Wachtel was born and raised in New York City and studied at the University of Missouri. While in college he crafted his first historical based short story. Recruited by the CIA, he opted out in favor of a business career. Starting on Wall Street, he was later a vice president of an international conglomerate, director of a management consulting firm, and then president of a medical technology company.  In his debut novel, THE ESSENE CONSPIRACY, a blend of fact and fiction, he has created dynamic fictional characters from composites of personalities with whom he crossed paths during his business career. Eric lives with his wife, Lynn, and Russian Blue cat in Vermont and Washington, D.C. A member of International Thriller Writers, he is at work on the next Harry McClure thriller.

Camille Minichino has published eight novels in the Periodic Table Mysteries series, featuring retired physicist GLORIA LAMERINO. The series continues in short stories on Kindle and As Margaret Grace, she’s published five novels in the Miniature Mysteries series, featuring miniaturist GERALDINE PORTER and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Maddie. As Ada Madison, she’s poised to release a new series, the Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries, featuring college professor SOPHIE KNOWLES. Camille received her Ph.D. in physics from Fordham University, New York City. She is currently on the faculty of Golden Gate University, San Francisco and on the staff of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Camille is on the boards of the California Writers Club and NorCal Sisters in Crime. She’s a member of NorCal Mystery Writers of America and SF Romance Writers of America.

A 27 year law enforcement veteran, Marc Cameron’s assignments have taken him from Mexico to Alaska and California to Manhattan. The author of six Western novels (as a ghost writer and under his pen name, Mark Henry), his short fiction has appeared in BOYS LIFE Magazine. His debut Thriller, NATIONAL SECURITY, will be released by Kensington November 1, 2011, with the sequel, ELEVENTH HOUR, coming out the following May. Marc lives in Alaska with his wife, blue heeler dog and BMW motorcycle.

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  1. The first answer I have to give to such a well-phrased question is All of the Above. Or yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    I think that for me characters are such a soup of experience, reading, inner life, people I’ve known, and of course somewhere hiding in there are Archetypes, Jungian or otherwise. I rarely put people from real life directly on the page – and when I do, they are the most likely to ring untrue to readers! Or at least that’s my experience.

    I spent a couple of memorable days in Arizona with a full-blooded Cherokee named Two Joe. He was six and half feet tall, had black hair down to his waist, and weighed . . . well, his name was Two Joe, not One Joe. He was delightful – flirtatious, smart, and a bit mystical. He was such an extraordinary person that I put him in one of my mysteries, Who Killed Dorian Gray? And he was singled out by a reviewer as being over-the-top unbelievable! So that taught me something. What exactly I’m not sure, but something . . . .

  2. I’m not proud of this, but I get most inspiration from the BAAAAD people in my life. That’s the old meaning of bad, not the new, good meaning of bad.

    Anyone who annoys me for any reason is immediately cast as a character. Names changed, of course, and often gender, but the incident gets immortalized.

  3. Bless you, Camille – he was adorable, he really was. I like what you said about bad people – how therapeutic to punish them by putting them in your books! Mwah hah hah (evil laugh.)

  4. Two Joe?

    I knew this was going to be an interesting Roundtable discussion as soon as I saw C.E. Lawrence’s name on the list of authors. 🙂

  5. Many years ago, I had a frustrating encounter with a postal worker. I wanted a book of stamps. Here’s the conversation, unedited:
    Clerk: I can’t sell you any today. I have only one book left.
    Me: I only want one book.
    Clerk: If I sell you this book, I won’t have any for the next person.
    Me: But I’m the next person. Someone has to get the last book. Why not me?
    Clerk: Because then I won’t have any for the next person.
    Me: So, the person after me is going to get the stamps?
    Clerk (frustrated): No, I can’t be left without stamps for the next person.

    How can I not put this guy in a book?

  6. Interesting posts. Thanks for letting me take part. It’s an honor.

    When I was a pup detective, a wise Texas Ranger gave me some of the best advice I ever got—for solving murders and writing stories. We were hunkered on a dirt road, beside the body of a young girl who’d been beaten to death with a tire iron—my first murder investigation. A greenback-fly larva—a maggot— had just hatched into its adult stage and flown smack into the Ranger’s mouth. He spit it out without so much as a stutter and said:

    “Marcus, you’ll do fine. Just write down everything you see…and watch out for the blow flies.”

    Not too long ago, while proofing one of my manuscripts, my wife asked me: “And exactly how is it you know so much about prostitutes?” It wasn’t a question to take lightly because our house is chock full of guns and she’s a crack shot. But I took it as a compliment.
    From a writer’s perspective, I suppose I’ve been fortunate to spend countless hours with killers, rapists, petty thieves…and prostitutes. I always found the hookers to be the most compelling and could never resist weaving them into my writing. Tragic cases all, but on so many different levels. Some are sardonic, some full of nervous giggles, others are just plain mean.

    On the other side of the coin, I’ve been able to rub shoulders with some of the most heroic men and women in the world.

    Following the Ranger’s advice, I keep a little Moleskine notebook with me all the time to record phrases, observations or the particular way someone holds their mouth. I thumb through the volumes often and used these traits like Scrabble tiles to build composite characters. Co-workers get grouchy when they say something they perceive as witty and I don’t immediately pull out my notebook.
    Along with these composites I suppose there’s a little of my own psyche mixed in as well. Even the hookers…

  7. Excellent post, Marc. I get the feeling you grew up around storytellers – possibly the kind who sat around the feed store or the fillin’ station tellin’ lies. Honestly, after reading your post, I want to read one of your books.

  8. Life experience has certainly played an important role in the characters I’ve created. During my earlier business career I traveled extensively and crossed paths with many dynamic individuals—good and bad. As a natural extension, my fictional characters reflect composites of many of these personalities.

  9. Thanks, Michael. You’re right about the feedstore story tellin’–complete with coffee cans full of tobacco spit between sacks of Calf Mana. I loved listening to those old men talk… That’s why I started my writing career with Westerns.

  10. I never, never, never, ever use real people as characters in my books. Now having said that, I DO use parts of people I see or meet. If I see an interesting piece of jewelry, I will put it on a character in a book. If I see an interesting face, hair style, eye shape or color, my next story character might have it. I study faces in the catalogues that come in my mail – J. Jill, L. L. Bean, Anthropologie, Chico’s, FreePeople, Macy’s-and when I find one that jumps out at me, I use it. Character names are important, too, and I spend a lot of time deciding on the right one. I use residential white pages phone books for interesting or lyrical sounding names. Another good source of character names are the movie and television credits that roll at the end. I listen to conversations I hear at Starbuck’s, Safeway, the rodeo, the library or standing in line at the post office for speech patterns, attitudes, gripes, expressions of happiness or love. Yes, I’m very nosy, but I’ve found some of my best dialogue that way.

    And even though I absolutely, positively don’t use real people as story characters, my daughter swears she sees herself in every one of my books.

  11. Camille, great story about the postal worker…

    I believe *every* character we write is drawn from life, our upbringing, who we meet (even fleetingly) or come to know; our personal experience(s), what we learn through reading and research, what we absorb from movies, television, the internet. … We build on combinations of knowledge. … In my novels and short stories, I deal with a mix of real people and wholly fictional characters. There is as much truth in one type as the other; who falls in which category based on requirements of the story I’m telling…

  12. Thank you, Michael, for your kind and supportive comment – right back atchya! And I love that you’re posting at 4 a.m. EST – what time zone are you in??

    Camille, what a great story – blinding, bumbling bureaucracy! Love it.

    I enjoyed your post very much, too, Marc – gotta love those Texas Rangers! And I love feed stores from my Carolina days! There’s just something about them, isn’t there? So real . . . I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a condescending Yankee.

    C.C., I love your character names! I think it’s great that we all have a different answer to this question, though we all seem to have common elements. I love the idea of looking at catalogues, though I often find those pretty faces kind of generic. Still, great idea.

    1. Time zone? I feel like I’m in the Twilight Time Zone sometimes . . . but to use the subtitle from a favorite movie, I’m on “The Far Side of the World,” daydreaming of being somewhere like the south end of Central Park, maybe outside Starbucks (you know where it is), sipping a Mocha in the cool morning air and watching the women walk to work. You know, just to get character-development ideas. 😉

  13. There is one thing I do try for in character development for the women in my stories.

    I try very hard to make them smart, strong and courageous, not weak and weepy. Even when uncertain, even if they are suspicious of certain people, or leery of certain situations, they always take some action to move toward their goal. They don’t run away screaming when they hear those creepy noises up in the attic or down in the basement. I force them (by giving them strong motivation) to go check it out. They do this even if they are frightened. To me, that’s real courage – being scared, but doing it anyway. If they’re not seen as strong when the story begins, they are by the time it ends.

    Think of the symbolic message portrayed by the picture of Rosie the Riveter, a sort of “I am woman, I am strong” thing. Or think about Scarlett O’Hara. Remember when she stood in that potato field swearing she’d never go hungry again? That powerful scene has stayed with me since childhood, and as a result I like to put my female characters in strange, new, difficult, or frightening situations, then have them find the strength to get out of it (with plenty of pain and angst along the way. )

    I think it’s important to have the girls and young women who read our books see this.

  14. I understand your perspective C.C. While I also prefer using fictional names for my characters, there are instances when using real-life names adds credibility to the story line. A note of caution, however—If you don’t want to end up in a potential libel suite, avoid using real-life names in a negative or derogatory manner.

  15. I try not to use real people in their “whole” form, but in bits and pieces to make a character. Try as I might though, some folks are just larger than life. I got several calls and emails from acquaintances in the law enforcement community after one of my first Western novels saying something like: “I loved it when you killed off ‘Gordon’ on page…” Gordon turned out to be flattered at having his nose bitten off and stabbed in the heart–but I hadn’t intended for his persona to be that obvious.

    I spend a lot of times on names as well when developing characters. We had to fight a giant guy once during a warrant arrest whose surname was Twigg. Great name for a tough bruiser.

    Sometimes, I build a character from a single phrase I hear. A couple of years ago, I popped off to one of my co-workers that when I got too old to consider myself useful, I planned to stuff my pockets with bacon and walk of into the Alaska Bush for a date with the grizzly bears– not a far walk where I live. My friend said: “you’ll be known as The Man Called Pooh”. I wrote it in my little book and stumbled across it a few monist ago. Ended up twisting the conversation into a short story called Death and Ms. FitzSimons that will appear in the Saturday Evening Post this November.
    In short, I suppose I must steal good stuff whenever I hear it.

  16. I agree with Bob that every character is someone we’ve met, heard, read about, in some way, whether we’ve made a record of it in a notebook or not.

    I had the same experience as C.C. with her daughter. At least 6 of my friends think they were the model for one of my sidekicks in the periodic table mysteries, when actually she’s a composite of about 12 of them.

  17. I think C.C. brings up an interesting point. Of course, you also have to believe in the characters you’re writing yourself. For instance, when I write characters of a different race or ethnic background from myself I always sweat just a little bit, afraid of playing into cliches, and equally afraid of backing so far away from them that the character doesn’t ring true.

    It helps to live in New York City, where I have access to so many cultures. But cross-cultural character writing still presents challenges. Anyone care to comment on that?

  18. In my newest novel, I built a fictional LAPD detective, Chris Blanchard, with characteristics that met the department’s hiring standards in the 30s, then put a face on him and began constructing elements of attitude that would help him go where I intended to take him. Bottom line hope was to keep Chris human, honest, likeable, and a no-nonsense cop good at his job, at the same time incorporating “nobody’s perfect” shades of gray. I needed the reader to be on his side, root for him, accept why he treated others as he did and why they responded to him in various ways. Then came similar construction with the other leading and secondary characters, both real and imagined…Sound like anything some or all of you do?

  19. I agree. Those shades-of-gray flaws are what make a protagonist intersting. And the good tendencies in the bad guy as well. I’ve found it eye opening over the years that most folks in the criminal element root for (and identify with) the good guys in movies and books. There are those Grand Theft Auto types that don’t fit this mold, but most I’ve dealt with have seen themselves as misunderstood good people.

    You’re right about the great pool of characters to draw from in New York. I’ve been working here a few days and will be here the rest of the week. Sat in Bryant Park this evening and just people watched. Facinating. Of course, as a thick blooded Alaska guy, I’m sweating my tail end off.

    I wrote a couple of short stories for BOYS’ LIFE Magazine where the protagonist was a teenage Yupik Eskimo. I was really sweating getting the culture right so I enlisted the help of my son’s best friend who is half Yupik. His mother got really into it and helped me quite a bit with language and nuance. She even made me some traditional native food…but that’s for another time. I’m sure I would never have sold the story had I not had their help because it wouldn’t have had the same ring of truth to it.

  20. C. E., Regarding cross-culture character writing, there’s nothing like living in the culture you are writing about!! I lived in Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation as a VISTA volunteer before I wrote THE CHARMSTONE. It’s a contemporary mystery set on the Navajo Indian Reservation, has Navajo characters, and includes some Navajo history. There is no way I could have written that book with such authenticity if I hadn’t actually lived there.

    Same with my new book, PICTURE OF LIES, which comes out next month. It’s also set on the Navajo Reservation, and the mystery is ignited by an incident in tribal history. It’s the story of a Navajo child who was kidnapped by missionaries and never returned. This was inspired by an actual event. A child that had been kidnapped by missionaries back in the 50’s was found to be living in Farmington, NM, and returned to his family some 50 years later. I would never have known this story or met these people if I hadn’t been living right there. My WIP extends and expands on some of the mysteries stemming from that.

    And my next book will be set in Switzerland. So I guess I have to go there.

  21. C.C.,
    Yes, I know exactly what you mean! My first published short story was set in New Mexico among local Latino/native Americans, and even though I only spent a few weeks there, I felt the culture “spoke” to me, if you know what I mean? Sometimes it almost feels as if you’re absorbing it through the pores in your skin, if that makes any sense.

    Other cultures speak to me very little; oddly, Spain left me rather cold. I was much more taken by Mexico and New Mexico. Go figure. Of course, it could have been the time in my life I was there.

    I had to smile thinking of you sitting in NYC this summer – I have never lived in Alaska, but I have to say NYC summers are wicked awful, though not as bad as Carolina, where we would sleep with wet towels on our backs and the fans running (no AC at college, sadly.)

    I’d love to read your Eskimo story – that sounds awesome cool. Yupik – what a great word.

  22. One of the greatest books I’ve read on the subject was the late Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat.” He’s writing about screenplays but everything he says applies to thrillers.

    For characters, he recommends giving them a “save the cat” moment — the moment at the beginning of the story when the reader will fall in love with your protagonist. The idea is that no matter how bad your gal is, if she climbs a tree to rescue a cat, readers will love her.

    I try to give my characters that moment in the first chapter—maybe she goes out of her comfort zone to do something for someone else; maybe she gives the janitor in her building a thank you present even if he was just doing his job. and so on.

    1. Yes, Yes, Yes! I LOVE “Save the Cat!” I meant to recommend Blake’s books during last week’s discussion about sagging middles, but I got so busy at work . . . . I also highly recommend “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies,” and “Save the Cat Strikes Back.” And, if you’re ever looking for a writers workshop for help with story structure, consider one of the Save the Cat weekenders. Blake went off to the big Screenwriters Guild in the sky, but his spirit lives on with his followers and workshop leaders. And no, I do not receive commissions, gratuities, favors, blurbs, or even a postcard from Hollywood for my shameless endorsements of Blake’s creations. 🙂

  23. Thinking…It’s more important in a series than in a stand-alone that the reader like the lead character(s), if the expectation is the reader will stick with the series. There’s more flexibility with a stand-alone, where it’s possible to write a lead who’s a louse, but a fascinating louse, a louse for the ages; you don’t care about him, but you do care to learn what happens to him. (Example of the latter: Forsyth’s “Day of the Jackal,” where any reader up on history knows the assassination attempt on DeGaulle fails, but it’s impossible to quit turning the pages.)

    1. Excellent point, and an example I can easily understand and remember since Forsyth is a long-time favorite, and I’ve read and watched “Day of the Jackal” . . . oh, numerous times. Thanks!

      This is a great example of why I love to read ITW Roundtable discussions. 🙂

  24. Good observation about Forsyth. I read The Dogs of War when I was in Junior High and remember most of the characters weren’t very likeable in that book either. Bad to the bone killers, in fact. The main character was a bit more likeable than his team though.

    I had an epiphany tonight about my people watching/character construction methods. Several folks from work suggested we go to a roof-top bar in Manhattan called 230 Fifth. Interesting place but WAY out of my country-boy comfort zone. Maybe it was becuase I was a little on edge, but I came away with what feel, for now at least, like a ton of fresh ideas and character observations. Don’t know if I’m making much sense here, but it felt like such a unique experience shook me out of my normal notions. I’m already working out a scene there in the next book.

    1. Great example, Marc. I have similar experiences in airports and on airplanes and trains, of all places. I was staying in a hotel that had a groundfloor bar between my room and the lobby. As I walked past the bar I would glance in and, on most evenings, see a gorgeous young girl serving drinks to a bunch of men who had loneliness written all over their faces. It was too much to pass up, so one evening I went in, sat down, took out my notebook, and went to work. I ended up with a short story that I really got into, and a poem the girl really liked.

      That bar, and the rooftop bar you mentioned, are good examples of why I am amused by people who think they need to go to a certain place for inspiration. I don’t think inspiration is that easily boxed in. Inspiration, like the Creator behind it, refuses to be confined to our expectations.

  25. Speaking of bars … I left my comfort zone to attend the Geek Meet at the Hyatt during ThrillerFest this year. It was worth every penny of my $10 ginger ale. Met some fascinating people as we pitched to other and shared stories. The guy next to me had come to pitch his first novel; I was getting input for my 18th. We both learned a lot!

  26. Michael, glad you’re also a fan of the Save the Cat collection. I spent a lot of time in their booth at the LA festival one year. C. E. and Marc, hope you like it!

    Good point, Bob, about the difficulty of keeping a scoundrel likable over a series. The only exception I can think of is Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. Loved him to the end.

  27. Yeah, had two six-dollar ginger ales last night, Camille. That’s another interesting technique I’ve heard Joseph Wambaugh uses–staying sober while those around you drink to excess– then observe and listen as their tongues loosen… At the very least, it’s entertaining.

  28. Robert,
    I agree – isn’t Day of the Jackal one of the great thrillers? Wow. So uncomfortable, because you don’t want to root for his success, yet there’s a creepy way that you’re on his side.

    Likewise with Eye of the Needle – another great premise, and amazing character. Though of course he’s the antagonist, you’re with him so much you begin to feel for him in SPITE of yourself. When she comes along it’s easier, but might I postulate a theory that in the absence of admirable characters, readers will root for the most active and/or interesting one?

  29. Camille, agree re Highsmith’s Ripley and TV’s Dexter. …

    Marc, re Joe Wambaugh: As part of his research-prep, he assembles small groups of cops and over drinks pays tight attention as they share out-of-school tales, many of which make their way into his wonderful novels. This technique also keeps him current on cop tactics, jargon, etc. (Full disclosure: JW said of my latest novel, A RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME: “…a nostalgic, wisecracking, action-packed romp.”) …

    CE, EYE OF THE NEEDLE was an early Follett at his best. I don’t know if I so much as rooted for the bad guy, Faber, as much as I was caught up in his actions and, of course, all concern and allegiance fell ultimately to Lucy…

  30. C.C. mentioned ways to find character names, and I’ve used some of the same methods. I can find names, but I dread choosing them. Very rarely do I know or even have a good feeling about whether a name will work. Tell me to describe something, I’ll run with it and have fun with it (didn’t say I was good at it). Tell me to create action and suspense, and I will get into it. But tell me to choose a name, and I freeze up like a chicken in a snowstorm.

    I once thought it would be fun to use names based on their meaning. I was working on a story involving a lot of Arab characters, and I got caught up in the meaning of some of the names. Some of them were so cool, I thought, “I have to let the reader know what this name means.” Of course, I overdid it by having characters mentioning or talking about the meaning of other characters’ names as if the meanings were omens of what was to come. A little bit of that was okay, but I got carried away and when I went back and read my draft, some of my characters reminded me of the dogs introducing themselves in Greg Larson Far Side cartoon:

    1st dog – “Hello, I am known as Vexorg, Destoryer of Cats and Devourer of Chickens.”
    2nd dog – “I am Zornorph, the One Who Comes by Night to the Neighbor’s Yard, and this is Princess Sheewana, Barker of Great Annoyance and Daughter of Queen La, Stainer of Persian Rugs.”

    Do you guys have trouble choosing character names? Can you share some examples of how you chose names for certain characters?

  31. Bob, how could I have forgotten Dexter! And he’s almost back!

    That fits right in with names, I think, Michael. (Thanks for the Far Side laugh.) Dexter’s name is perfect — “on the right.” Sure he is! Skillful, yes. The name is a little nerdy, very trustworthy, and the perfect set up for Dex-Starr, the comics version.

  32. Michael,
    That is hilarious. Instead of dogs, in my head I saw a sci fi nerd dressed as a Klingon . . . ah, yes. Oh, wait – I once played a Klingon in an industrial. But to be fair, I was getting paid to do it.

    That’s a good question about character names. I have to honestly say that they “come” to me a lot of the time. When it’s an ethnic choice, I go to one of those fabulous websites, like Armenian Girl Names, peruse them and pick one. It feels kind of unconscious to me, so I never really analyzed it much. Or sometimes I choose them for effect – my forensic linguist is Hildegarde Elena von Boehm Krieger, so she’s kind of the answer to How German Is It?

  33. Michael, coming up with names that best suit a character is always tough for me, a case of making the punishment fit the crime. … Once I lock into a name, that’s it, who the character is, me unwilling (unable) to change mid-ms. … Strong names for strong good and bad leads, e.g., Clegg in HOT PAINT; the name seemed to resonate. C, G and K are great letters to work with for that. …

    I often use a modified movie star’s name, in part to shorthand an image of my fictitious character, e.g., actress Marie MacDaniels in A RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME. … The late Michael Crichton named a protagonist “John Conner,” hoping (or expecting) the character to be played by Sean Connery when the movie version of “Rising Sun” was made. John. Sean. Conner. Connery…. (The movie was made and Connery played Conner….)

    For my first of four “Affair” books, THE ELVIS AND MARILYN AFFAIR, I struggled to come up with names for the two leads, working various combinations until settling on Neil Gulliver and Stephanie (Stevie) Marriner. Arrived a time when I received email from a reader who announced he’d figured out how I made those choices–“Gulliver,” as in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, “Marriner,” because Swift’s Gulliver was a seaman. … “Absolutely right, congratulations,” I wrote back. Why not? As good an explanation as any, and something he could talk up with his friends (who might be inspired to run out and buy a copy or two, devious soul that I am….)

  34. I sometimes play a game where I name people I see in crowds, or people I’m about to meet at a function. IE: She looks like a Natasha… or he looks like a Boris…or Glenda or Todd… I’m usually wrong, unless I pick the name Catelyn becuase every other female under the age of twenty-two seems to be named Catelyn or some variation of the spelling–a fact I wish I’d know before we gave the name to our daughter. She has a best friend with the same name everyone calls…Dupli-Cate.

    The BOYS’ LIFE story I talked about earlier–“The Ballad of Runny Nose” is about how much trouble names can cause a person since in Yupik Eskimo culture someone can have several different names depending on who is doing the addressing. Culture can play a lot into naming and I spend a great deal of time–maybe too much–fretting over the right one. In the new thrillers my lead blunt-instrument government agent was Gideon Quinn but a new series by other authors came out recently beating me to GIDEON so my guy was rechristened JERICHO Quinn. I’ve never met another Jericho but liked the ring of it. And in any case, I usually just call him Quinn.

    I have been known to name male characters I plan to kill off after our daughter’s boyfriend d’jour. The more disgusting the boyfriend the more grusome his–I mean the character’s–fate. Poor Jordan has no idea what is in store for eponymous Jordan in book three…Bwahahaha.

  35. I once thought I could use real names as place holders, then change them later. Wrong! I’d get so attached to the name by the 3rd chapter that I couldn’t let go. Now I work it out ahead of time.

  36. Working late last night and pondering this duscussion…
    Though much of my published short fiction has bee from a teenage boy’s POV, I still find myself intimidated when creating child characters. I read a lot of fiction where children’s dialoge looks right on the page, but sounds stilted when read aloud. Good writers for kids have a certain knack to make it work. I believe the idea is, like all characters, to make the kids individuals, not just cookie-cutter six year olds. Steven King is masterful at this in my opinion.
    Maybe an odd observation, but I find it easier to write from the POV of an adult female than that of a six-year-old boy–even though I spent an entire year as the latter, oh so long ago. And, my wife will attest that I’m a long way from being a sensitive guy off-paper.
    My protagonist in the new Thrillers has a six-year-old violin-prodigy daughter. I write about her, give her dialogue but, so far, haven’t written from her POV…
    I’d be interested in how some of you go about crafting child characters…

  37. Marc,
    That’s a good question. I don’t know if you have ever done any acting, but when I was making a living doing comedy improv I came up with a character in a scene, an annoying, overly intelligent little geek of about 11. My fellow actor, Jeff Clinkenbeard, playing her grandfather, called her Meredith, and the scene went so well we repeated the characters in subsequent shows. The more I played the role, the more I felt I got to know her.

    Then when I signed with Berkley for a mystery series, I ended up making her the detective character, with an older woman as her “Watson.” I even kept the name Jeff had given her: Meredith. She seemed like a Meredith to me by then.

    So you might try some improv or acting classes to kind of play around with the idea of getting into your character’s head. I feel there’s a pretty direct correlation between the kind of work I did as actor and writing characters, actually. A lot of writers I know have acted, professionally or otherwise – the technique is exactly the same, only you don’t have to learn lines and be onstage. But the imaginative journey is the same.

  38. Thanks, Carole–or do you prefer C.E.?
    Good advice. Oddly enough for a veteran lawman–or maybe not– I was an theater major my first two years of college. I do draw on those experiences quite a bit in both my lines of work. I suppose I just need to get in touch with my inner child…
    I’ve been pleased with the way my younger characters turn out in the end…but it’s a long haul each and every time. Maybe it’s supposed to be. Perhaps I have lost some of my naiveté that makes childhood so wonderful…

  39. Carole or C.E. are both fine, Marc – you know how those pen names are. I have too damn many names. You know what I remember most about childhood is how unnuanced my feelings were, and how intense. I mean, I still have intense feelings but back then it felt like overload sometimes. And also the world felt animated, mystical maybe, in a way that it’s easy to lose later on.

  40. Marc wondered:

    My protagonist in the new Thrillers has a six-year-old violin-prodigy daughter. I write about her, give her dialogue but, so far, haven’t written from her POV…
    I’d be interested in how some of you go about crafting child characters…

    Marc, I haven’t written many kid characters, an exception being the kid sister in my novel ASK A DEAD MAN, along with some kids in two or three short stories that ran in Queen and Hitchcock. … Not sure the how of writing them, but it’s likely I drew on a good memory for how my brothers (two) and sisters (one and a half) grew up and ,and a point of researching dress, slang and so forth of the period(s). You dig? Groovy! ; )

  41. Carole introduced the idea of actors and acting to the discussion…It reminded me of the difference that exists from one school of acting to another. The Actors Studio (where I was involved in another life) advocated what became known as “the method,” generating character and emotion from memory. The Brit school of acting most often urged the reverse build the character from the outside (make-up and costume in). As one example, think of all the putty noses Lord Olivier used…Factoid: Chas Laughton was cast as Micawber in MGM’s David Copperfield. He couldn’t get the look of the character to his satisfaction, so begged off. The role went, of course, memorably to W.C. Fields…

  42. Robert,
    Wonderful story – I had no idea! Thanks….. you’re so right about the British vs. US differences in approach, though we’ve come closer to each other in recent years, I think. And if you read My Life In Art, Charlie Chaplin’s account of “discovering” the Little Tramp from throwing on costume bits is truly marvelous and mystical and memorable.

    If you’ve ever done Mask work, you’ve had that unearthly experience of donning a character that way; it’s truly worth doing at some point. It’s absolutely spooky; I’ve taken and taught Mask classes, and there’s nothing quite like it. I recommend it for any actor or writer.

  43. Camille, Carole, Robert, and Marc,

    Thank you for your helpful responses to my character-name question, and thanks to each of you, as well as C.C. and Eric, for making this a very informative and fun Roundtable!

    You guys (and other great, helpful authors from past Roundtables) make me proud to be a member of ITW.

  44. Leaving the hotel in a few minutes for the long flight back to Alaska from NYC. I’m sure there will be oh so many characters to observe enroute. And I guess that’s the point. Our inspirations are all around us, rubbing off on our psyches as we interact even if we are not aware of it. Maybe my next character will be the person squished up next to me on the plane…
    Great discussion. Like I said in the beginning, it’s an honor.

  45. I agree – great discussion this week. I too am proud to be a part of this wonderful organization. I look forward to seeing all of you in person one of these days, at ThrillerFest or elsewhere.
    Have a safe flight, Marc! Best to all of you,
    Carole (C.E.)

  46. Oh look, our first spam, from apple!

    In response to the “kid” question — I have a 10-year-old character in my second series. To write her, I tuned in to every kid I know and interviewed a couple of my friends’ children. Still, I wouldn’t try to write from her POV. Getting dialogue and attitude right is one thing (as Marc says), but getting inside the head of a kid is another, especially for a whole novel. Doing a “foreign” POV, whether gender, or race, or age, for a short piece is doable for me, but not a full-length novel.

    This has been a terrific week; I’m so glad to have “met” all of you.
    Hope to see some of you at Left Coast Crime in Sacramento, or, for sure at ThrillerFest!

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