Wednesday, 3 February 2010

plot and character

I’m sometimes asked if I base my characters on real people. Many authors do. It is well known that Sherlock Holmes was based on the observant physician, Joseph Bell, who taught Conan Doyle at Edinburgh Medical School.
My own answer to the question is always ‘No’. The better I know a person, the more difficult it would be to base a character on them. Real people are endlessly complex and frequently contradictory. The same person can be grouchy or optimistic, sociable or yearning for solitude, placid or foul tempered, confident or reticent – you get the point.
I wonder where other writers 'find' their characters. I'm not sure where mine come from.
In crime fiction plot is key. I thought multifaceted characters would be confusing but Cut Short has been criticised for its characters lacking depth. So I need to rethink my approach.
In Road Closed I worked on my main character, Geraldine Steel. She has become more engaging (I hope!) But has the plot suffered as a result of my focus on Geraldine? I don't think so, but I still have a long way to go before I'll be satisfied that I've mastered the craft of writing.
As I complete my editing of Road Closed and begin to think about book 3, Dead End, I need to keep my wits about me.
I know the formula:
engaging characters + dramatic plot = great crime thriller
But will my experiment produce the intended results?
How do other writers juggle plot vs character?

New review of CUT SHORT on Noir Journal http://noirjournal.typepad.com/noir-journal/

27 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I'd say a lot of my characters have composite characteristics of folks I know. They are seldom based primarily on one person, although I have done that with secondary characters.

Debs said...

My characters tend to be a mixture of people I've come across and my imagination.

Btw, I love the titles you have for your books.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Charles - I'm sure my characters are made up of aspects of people I've met, probably only as perceived/imagined by me!
Occasionally I meet someone who bears an almost uncanny resemblance to one of my characters. That's a strange experience. I actually 'met' my detective sergeant the other day. He was just like my character. Spooky!

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Debs - oh the book titles. So hard to find. I'm very pleased with Cut Short and Road Closed. Book 3 is called Dead End, to fit in with the theme. I'm struggling to think of a fourth, but there's time yet... The trouble is, every time I dream up something, I find it's been done before. I fancied Cold Blood (cold blooded killer, cold corpse) but it's already been used several times.

HelenMHunt said...

Personally, I love Geraldine Steel and found her very engaging. I'm really looking forward to reading her next outing.

Leigh Russell said...

Ah, thank you, Helen. That's so encouraging. You're going to find out more about her in ROAD CLOSED, I promise.

Val said...

I've only done short stories so I'm not so sure that I'm qualified here.

My characters spring up from how I imagine they might be. The more I use a character in subsequent 'shorts', the more that character develops.
More facets show themselves as we go on.

I'm sure this is how Geraldine will develop also.
The more you engage her, the more complicated she will become?

Love the titles.
Must be hard to find new ones!

Leigh Russell said...

Don't you think character is as important in short stories as in longer works, Val? You just have less time to develop them, so have to be more concise and efficient in your writing.

Val said...

Actually yes I guess they do need to be developed also and in a short time.

I've written with one main character...short stories for a magazine...sort of *The Adventures of...* and over a few years the character kept growing and developing with me.

What fun isn't it?

Middle Ditch said...

Hi Leigh, as Debs said, I too LOVE the titles of your books. Really fitting.

As for characters? I take 'bits' of people I know. For example, I know a lady who always says "Don't you think so?' or "Don't you agree?"and it was a very fitting catch phrase for my character Sarah in MD.

And as for titles? I sure do know how hard they are.

Leigh Russell said...

Great fun, Val. I was interested that you have a character who is developing through your different stories, 'growing and developing with you.' It sounds as though this character might be based on you ?

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Monique - I haven't been over to Middle Ditch for a while, I've been so busy. Edits of ROAD CLOSED are almost done but as soon as I deliver the final final copy of the MS, I'll be off signing CUT SHORT again as the reprints are now done. No rest for the wicked! I do like being busy, but I also want to have time to visit Middle Ditch... I miss it.

Val said...

Leigh...they may also be characters that I 'wished' I was!

BernardL said...

Like Charles, my characters are made up of composite characteristics of folks I know well or have interacted with along life's trail. From there on though, it's pure fiction. Many character interactions I write about are based in real life encounters. That's one of the fun things about writing.

Leigh Russell said...

So your writing's a bit of wish fulfilment, Val. Sounds like a good idea.

Leigh Russell said...

So your writing's a bit of wish fulfilment, Val. Sounds like a good idea.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Bernard - I like the idea of using real life interactions. I wonder if they're encounters you have, or ones you observe.

It just goes to show, you can find inspiration anyywhere.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Bernard - I like the idea of using real life interactions. I wonder if they're encounters you have, or ones you observe.

It just goes to show, you can find inspiration anyywhere.

Leigh Russell said...

Is this happening to anyone else or is it just me? My comments are appearing twice...

laurie said...

the plots spring from the characters, or else it doesn't work.

but, of course, easier said than done.

Leigh Russell said...

Yes and no, Laurie. As a writer of crime fiction, my plots have to be carefullly worked out. The problems occur when my characters take on lives of their own. They have to perform certain actions to serve the plot but at the same time they have to behave in character or, as you say, the book doesn't work.

Helen Ginger said...

I don't base characters on real people, but I'm sure "reality" slips in here and there. I try to let my imagination take control so I can see the character in my head.

Helen
Straight From Hel

Pat said...

As mine is a memoir my characters are real but in fiction I often use real characteristics of people I have known.

Leigh Russell said...

I know what you mean, Helen. I've no idea where my characters come from, but I suppose their characteristics must be based on those of people I've met.

Leigh Russell said...

Pat, memoirs must be difficult to write. I think if I ever tried to write my memoirs, it would be unreadable, let alone unpublishable, and a lot of people I know wouldn't speak to me again... Far too difficult!

Rose said...

I see what you mean, about not basing characters on people you know- although they are a good source, it can be complicated, and im always worried about people complaining that they are not really like that. Having said that though, i do know somebody who isnt very amiable, in fact he is a complete monster. I wouldn't mind basing a character on him ;)

Leigh Russell said...

Monsters are fair game, Rose. Sadly, I think real people can be nastier and weirder than any character invented in fiction. I hope you don't have too much to do with the monster you know. Life's too short.