Everyone knows that actors strive to get “in character” to give their best performance. The same is true for those of us writing fiction. While writing a novel, I generally choose three main characters from whose point of view the story will be told. Each of these point-of-view (POV) characters is someone I must learn to think like. For the actor, the character being portrayed is already developed. Granted, the actor must make that character his own. To understand the challenge of the author, imagine getting into a character that is in development. Because I tend to write alternating POV chapters for better sequencing, I am constantly going in and out of three or four different characters throughout a years-long writing project. This involves going from protagonist, to antagonist to leading support character and back to protagonist. Accordingly, my mind must think only of the hero when writing the protagonist, only the villain if I am working on the antagonist. If I am writing a female character, I must think like a member of the opposite sex, which my wife of thirty years will plainly tell you, is a personal challenge in and of itself.
When crafting a villain like Anstrov Rinaldi in 2018’s Hiatus, I had to let my mind go to a sinister place to get the character just right. I wasn’t sure what to think when so many people told me they enjoyed Rinaldi better than the story’s hero, Ben Abraham. Maybe it just means that while creating Rinaldi, I was able to stay in character at a deeper level than when I was writing the Abraham chapters. Part of enjoying thrillers is experiencing the evil plan of the villain through the villain’s eyes. The reader needs to feel the “why” behind the villain’s antics. If the writer cannot stay in character, developing the feel demanded by the reader is near impossible. Consequently, the writer needs to experience the pain, the suffering, or life-changing event that causes the villain to do what he does. This can take the writer down the path of feeling the pain of rejection, the loss of a loved one, or the agony of being robbed of a dream. These feelings will drive character behavior and dialog.
In Shaman published in 2019, much of the early story is told through the perspective of Jade, a young Incan woman living as a peasant in the latter part of the fifteenth century. Here, the writer must not only imagine the feelings and emotions inherent in the character’s situation, but he must also do it in the setting of an ancient Peruvian civilization. In this circumstance, the writer must place his mind in that of someone whose daily happenings are unlike anything the author ever experienced. Sure, imagination is essential, but the real trick is becoming that character during the writing process. Similarly, my current project, Escaping Mercy, involves writing from the perspective of characters living 150 years in the future. The same challenges apply but the steel rod running through all these scenarios is the same – staying in character. This is the primary ingredient when creating compelling characters people will remember years after they first read your story.
It’s been said that an author throws a little bit of himself into every character he creates. I’m not sure that’s entirely true but it is probably safe to say that characteristics of people the author has known contribute to all characters he creates. Regardless, before I write a single word from a character’s POV, I sketch out all that person’s physical characteristics. Are they tall or short? Is their hair long or close-cropped? I decide other key features like eye color, the size and shape of their head or nose. Do they have a cleft chin? As in the case of Anstrov Rinaldi, part of his “why” contributed to his physical appearance. Before the reader learns the “why,” they see his physical description – which makes the reader curious as to how he got that way.
Rinaldi made his way into the building, displayed his ID, and proceeded to the bank of elevators for the ascent to the executive conference room on the fiftieth floor. In the lift, a young secretary whom Rinaldi had never seen before appeared startled by his appearance. Rinaldi understood. A lifetime of ridicule had followed him. His outward front wore shame like a badge of honor. Blind in his right eye, he did not wear a patch. Rather, a glass eye stared straight ahead, never in harmony with the movement of its partner. Rinaldi’s eyes were far enough apart from one another as to appear unusual at first glance. His face was pockmarked and red. His right knee, long ago crushed by the spooked horse, barely had any useful remaining function. Standing only five feet, six inches, Rinaldi’s stout frame contributed to the aura he presented. Knowing how he appeared to people, his first instinct was to attempt a smile and some friendly banter but because he spoke with a low, scratchy voice, an attempt at a kind gesture dribbled out of his mouth like unwanted saliva.
Staying in character for me requires an almost solitary confinement during the writing process. Once I achieve the proper state of mind, I feel invincible. No one could write this character any better! As the novel progresses, I find myself questioning my own lines of dialog. Is that something Rinaldi would really say? By this point, I feel I know the character so well, these self-interrogations of my own writing feel perfectly natural.
As I complete one novel, I wait several months before beginning another. I do this for two reasons. The first is to give my mind time to fully develop the new concept. The second is to enable myself to disengage from the previous story’s characters. I give myself high marks on number one but on number two, I struggle mightily. While writing Shaman through the POV of Dan Alston, Tally Clayton, Eli Shepherd and Maritza Coya, I had trouble getting Ben Abraham, Rachel Larkin and Anstrov Rinaldi out of my head. In truth, it takes me seven or eight chapters of a new book to truly flush the last novel’s characters from my brain. As I write my current novel, Escaping Mercy, I am trying desperately to remain in character for the sake of my new protagonists, Dex Holzman and Cam Atkinson and their sinister counterpart, Erik deBaak. I just haven’t gotten Dan Alston and company completely out of my brain…yet.