Creating Characters

I’m in the early stages of writing the next Jeri Howard book, titled Cold Trail.

The book will feature a number of characters that readers have seen in earlier books in the series, including members of Jeri’s extended family.

I am also in the process of creating some new characters to people my book. Two of those new characters are named Lance and Becca. I’m writing the scene where Jeri talks with Lance. Becca has not yet appeared, but she’s about to walk into the scene.

Lance and Becca. Who do you see when you read those two names?

The people you visualize may not be the people described to Jeri by another character. Or the people Jeri sees when she finally meets them.

It’s up to me, the writer, to add the details. Hair color and style, clothing and shoes, facial features, physical movements, psychological quirks, and backstories. It’s not just a matter of what they look like or the spaces they inhabit. How do they relate to the other characters in the book? What role do they play in the plot?

When I create characters out of those two names, I want the reader to see the people that Jeri sees, people who may well be concealing something of themselves from Jeri.

Bringing Lance and Becca to life got me thinking about how I create characters.

When I first began writing about my protagonist, Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard, I kept detailed notes on how she looks and the clothes and shoes she prefers to wear. I even visualized the apartment where she lived when I began the series, using the floor plan of an apartment I’d once looked at in the Adams Point section of Oakland, near Lake Merritt. Later in the series, when Jeri buys a small house in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, I used another real floor plan, that of the house bought by an acquaintance. I know how Jeri furnishes these places and of course I know all about her cats.

Writing about an environment I can see helps me create characters. I do a lot of location research, all the better to see my characters in the world I create for them. It could be as simple as a drive through Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, looking for a likely home for an ex-con mechanic named Acey Collins, in Take A Number. Or visiting a house in Mendocino, on California’s north coast, inhabited by a character in A Credible Threat.

Or riding trains for Death Rides the Zephyr.

Much of the action I’m writing now takes place in Petaluma, in Sonoma County, an hour or so north of San Francisco. It’s familiar territory. I have friends who live there. In fact, every few months a group of fellow writers and I meet in Petaluma for lunch.

Small wonder that the scene I’m writing now, with Lance and the soon-to-show-up Becca, takes place just down the block from the restaurant where we meet for our writerly lunches.

You see, the surroundings say something about the characters I’m crafting.

And so do names.

How would you see Lance and Becca if I told you I’ve changed their names to George and Carrie?

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4 Responses

  1. Your question? I’d say George and Carrie are substantially older and probably richer than L & B.

  2. Don’t know about richer, but certainly older. Lance is a kind of slick guy, or maybe an athlete (guess I know where that came from), but I really mostly think of a sharp dresser, possibly with class. Becca might be cuddlier or even shy. But of course their mothers (fathers?) named them, so it can be fun to give a name like Lance to a couch potato and make Becca a raving beauty with a foul mouth. It depends on whether you want the reader to remember their names in an “of course” kind of way or because they feel the jolt. Good question!

  3. I definitely see a difference between Lance and George, who makes me think of George W. B.–and that’s not someone I want to spend time with. Lance is smooth, handsome, untrustworthy. Well, I’ll have to meet the characters, read the book when it comes out. I prefer Carrie to Becca, but that’s because I know a Becca who came to visit for a weekend that turned into three weeks because one of her kids came down with measles. And then my kids did, too. What a relief to finally see them all go! Names are so subjective, aren’t they?

  4. Thanks for your comments. I definitely think that sometimes characters, like cats, tell you what their names are.

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