The Unbooted Character

Song of the Day: “The Unbooted Character” – Duke Ellington

Lately I’ve been honored with a lot of questions about characterization. Readers ask how I come up with my characters while fellow writers inquire about how I make them multidimensional. A previous post on this site, entitled On A Carousel, talks about the creation of Christopher in Love’s Forbidden Flower. Basically, all of my characters are created the same way. Something or someone triggers a look or a personality trait, and most of what I need snowballs from there. However, the quirks and insight that brings them to life is found in other places, and in other ways.

Now is a good time to mention that if what I’m about to say sounds like I’m off my rocker, I’m not. At least not over this. What I say next comes from years of acting experience, both stage and screen. Actors will agree that my method is not at all weird, but non-thespians will pull out the key to the padded cell. So, with that said, the way I develop my characters is that I talk to them. I also let them talk back. And I listen. It may sound like I am certifiable, but I have conversations, both serious and mundane, with my characters.

By a conversation, I don’t mean an interview. A Q&A session only gets you direct answers, and that is only part of the story. Think of your favorite celebrity. Have you seen him or her interviewed question and answer style? Have you also seen that person on a talk show where the mood is lighter and they actually discuss something? Which way do you feel like you have gotten a chance to get to know the person a little?

During an interview the subject is put on the spot and gives only direct answers. People tend to stiffen in those situations so their body language becomes muted. In a talk show atmosphere the person is more relaxed and possibly chatty. Less formal questions are asked via a conversation, not an inquisition. The guest can relax and therefore reveal more of their true personality. They may even offer additional information that would not come out in a formal interview. Do you see the difference? Now compare this to talking with a friend over coffee. Those conversations can become rather intimate. Thus revealing even more of a person’s character.

So how is this done? For me, while driving is best because I can mentally project anyone into the passenger seat. It’s a neutral place, especially when I am zooming down the freeway on an uncluttered road and my mind opens. My character Lily and I have had the best talks this way.

There are other times when I pop the person into an environment that feels more like a place they would be. I find Lily in my kitchen. Donovan sits across from me at the library. Why? Because of a deleted scene in Love’s Forbidden Flower where Lily discovers Donovan hides in the library one night a week. He lets his guard down a little, acknowledges he’s being a dick, and allows her to see through him a bit. Christopher likes to hang in my home office and talk music. We’ve spent a lot of time lying on the floor chatting about how his father treats him and how different he is from his brothers. It seems to bother him quite a bit.

It’s in these conversations that my characters are their most relaxed. I learn about them because I engage in activities that they would. It allows me to watch how they move, hear their voices, and feel their emotions. Just like other good friends, they become a part of me.

Time to go. Donovan is dragging me to the gym.

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