Creating History for Fictional Characters
By Natalie Bright
“I’m not quite sure what I feel is missing.” This from an agent who had requested my middle grade novel. “It doesn’t feel fully cooked yet.”
What’s missing? This character has haunted me and has woken me up nights for almost a year. My critique group had critiqued every word, phrase and scene. They loved it! I posted this agent’s email on my bulletin board and studied them over and over. All the while this character keeps clogging my brain. She’s ready for two more adventures and I still don’t know what’s missing.
While lunching with writer friends, the discussion turned to their small town series. One already had a contract for seven novels, and the other had plans for four with hopes of pitching her idea in the near future. They discussed the dynamics of creating a fictional town with characters that must ultimately resonate with readers. I asked them how would one keep up with all of that detail, not just who is who, but the history of how they
got there, the street layout, the minute details that bring a story to life for the readers?
Their answer involved two very different processes, which I’d like to sharing with you here: Jodi Thomas [www.jodithomas.com] keeps all of that detail in her head. She becomes so engrossed in the world she creates, that if she writes any notes it’s hard for her brain to remember if she used that in the book or not. The town, the people, their quirks and strengths, all vividly ramble around in her amazing head. She can “see” the streets, the buildings, the characters as they play out the story. While she’s writing one book, her brain is working out details for the next and the next. Her character’s reactions and personalities chart the course.
Phyliss Miranda [www.phylissmiranda.com] begins with extensive research on her location and develops detailed characterizations. She charts a family tree for her characters, going back several generations. She writes detailed descriptions on what they look like, their good and bad habits, their favorite foods, childhood experiences, etc.
Both agreed that giving your characters a history is very important. I replied that my main character is only eleven, so she doesn’t have much history to tell. Their response was a rapid-fire line of questioning: How did her father and mother meet? Where was her mother born? Why did is her father a US Marshall? Where do her grandparents live? Horrors! I had to admit that I didn’t know the answer to any of those questions.
Today, I’m happy to report my character has a history. Over the New Year’s Holiday I created family tree charts, expanded my characterizations, drew a town plat, and because I write historical, I made a complete time line on creation of the town. And the best thing, I got ideas for two more adventures.
Now, if I only had the courage to submit it again…
NOTE: Both of these authors will be speaking at Frontiers in Writing Conference June 28-30 at Amarillo, Texas. Jodi will be talking about finding inspiration to write every day at the Friday night dinner, and Phyliss will be conducting a workshop on developing characters. www.panhandleprowriters.org click on the FiW Conference tab.