Everything Books
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January 11, 2012

Behind the Book — Creating a Character

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , — jennifer @ 8:31 pm

I spent yesterday at the Central Library downtown, gathering the most enormous armful of books you’ve ever seen on everything from Darryl Zanuck to Louella Parsons to a history of Los Angeles itself. I spent today at my desk, constructing a timeline for the book– listing every interesting event or incident that happened in L.A. during the late 1940s. It’s my map of the time period and the place. Once I have all the info down, I can start weaving Velva Jean’s story into it.

The other thing I did was start to sculpt a new character. Not just any character, but one who will figure prominently into Velva Jean’s Hollywood story. So far, he’s stumped me. And because he’s going to be pretty pivotal to the plot, I need him figured out before I can go much further.

One of the ways I get inspiration is to read real stories. I scour books and internet sites and newspaper articles from the time. I make note after note and play with idea after idea. He could be this, he could be that. Maybe he’s an actor. Maybe he’s a famous actor! Maybe he’s a director. Maybe he’s a singer or a big band conductor. Maybe he has nothing to do with movies or music at all. While I’m scouring, I’m trying out every version and possibility I can think of. Time after time, for the past few weeks, I’ve been hitting the proverbial brick wall.

Last night I opened one of those library books– one I picked up almost by accident– and there on the pages was my character. I knew him on sight. He was the one I’d been looking for.

The book I’m talking about was actually written by him, and as I was reading I thought: I can’t improve on the real man. I wouldn’t change a thing about him. Here’s the thing though: it’s tricky writing a real person into a piece of fiction if you’re going to use that real person for a major character. You’re not required to change the identity if the person is a public figure– as my mom says, you really have to use your judgment– but in a case like this, I felt it was best.

So I gave him a new name and then I opened up Scrivener (where I like to create my character sketches) (when I create actual character sketches). I wrote down everything about the real character that I liked and found compelling, and as I did so I suddenly could see the story and see him in it. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was leaving the real person behind and the character was taking over. I could hear his voice. I could see his mannerisms. I could imagine him in all different scenarios and scenes, both with and without Velva Jean. I knew where he came from. I knew what he thought about before he went to sleep at night. I knew him on a bad day and a good one.

When an idea takes hold like this, you know it’s a good one– the right one. Because it leads you down the road to more discoveries. It opens the story right up to you and suddenly– just like that, just like the clouds are clearing away– you can see it.

The last thing I did, after the creative burst began to subside (pages and pages later), was to experiment with names. I’m still playing with his name because names are important. They have to sound authentic to the character. They have to ring true. I think I’ve found it, but I want to live with it for a day or two before I commit. The very last thing I did was cast my character. This meant I got to do one of my favorite things– sort through Google images of actors from the 1930s and 1940s. I looked at everyone from Robert Mitchum to Tyrone Power to Clark Gable to William Powell. I had to find just the right pose, just the right expression so that I wouldn’t look at the picture and think of the actor, but I would think of my character instead. In other words, I was using the actor much as I’d used the real-life man: as inspiration to go from.

Finally I found him. And while I’d love to post him here, I can’t reveal him yet because he’s still too fresh, too new, and I need to keep him close.

But I’m newly energized. Even as I turned off my office lights for the day and went on to eat dinner and do dishes and play with the cats, the character is working for me. I keep thinking: Oh! And then he can do this. Oh! And then he can do that. And he and Velva Jean will see each other here, and then here, and then they can do this, and then they’ll do that, and then, and then, and then… And, before I know it, I’m back at my computer, making more notes.

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