One rule I learned in writing class was, Write what you know. It’s a rule I seldom follow, but when I’m building characters, I stick to it like glue.
For example, cooking wasn’t my forte when I was young. My poor mama tried her best, but my eyes glazed over and my imagination went elsewhere and she was left holding the bag. By the time I got married, I knew how to bake brownies (out of a box) and make spaghetti.
I’m telling you this because in Whispers Through Time, our heroine, Sierra Masters, hates to cook and classifies her kitchen as her least-visited room in the house. She even has a housekeeper-cook (my most elaborate daydream!) to keep her fed. She has a doorbell that no one but her assistant can hear. (So do I.) Our hero, Hunter Davenport, suffers from wanderlust and a need to research to death anything that grabs his attention. (Yeah…even this.)
These are quirks I know well, and I believe building memorable characters always involves using quirks we’re familiar with. So, in that way, I write what I know.
Female characters that have stayed with me for years seem to come from old novels – not necessarily classics, but novels written years ago. Scarlett O’Hara, from Gone With the Wind. Just that name conjures up a beautiful, feisty, spoiled, selfish southern belle, doesn’t it? Or, Rebecca De Winter, a deceased character in Daphne DuMaurier’s amazing novel, Rebecca. She’s actually more alive than any other character I can think of, and held me spellbound all the way through. Finally, there’s the driven, selfish, secretly insecure Amber St. Clare from the wonderful novel set in 17th century England, Forever Amber.
All these books have had movies based on them, but the books are far more vivid – and the characters, as I saw them while I was reading, aren’t like the movies depicted them in the final analysis. To this day, if a character won’t come quite clear to me, I dive back into one of those wonderful novels just to study how it’s done.
Using quirks became second nature to me when I wrote personality profiles for various magazines and periodicals back in the day. Later, when I collaborated with people to help them tell their stories, I had to discover their ‘voice’ before I could begin the actual work. By the time I started writing Whispers Through Time, every single character had idiosyncrasies that made them very real to me. I even keep a notebook that I can use to jot down a character quirk when I see one while I’m standing in line, waiting in an office, or just people-watching in a park.
I hope this has helped you a smidgen if you’re having trouble with a character, and I’d love to hear your ideas!