Half-Baked Cupcakes: Getting Your Characters “Done”

It’s no secret:  I’m a historian, and I write a lot of historical fiction. Even my urban fantasies are infused with history. (Sort of hard not to be, when one of my MCs is an 18th-century ghost, I guess.)

But one thing I’ve learned over the past years is that characters will often come to you fully formed – including backstory – and sometimes, they don’t. They’re like a cupcake that’s not quite done in the center. It looks done; the top has risen, and it looks like all the other cupcakes, but it’s just not. Stick the toothpick in, and you get a gooey mass of unbaked chocolate batter.

So what do you do?

There’s a couple of things. First, figure out what you do know about this character. They came to you, so clearly you need them in the story somehow. They fulfill a purpose. Of course, if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water and we’re never seeing him again, then no worries. Don’t bother. But if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water, and suddenly he pulls out a gun and shoots at the baddie that’s been secretly stalking your MC – wow. He just turned into a Real Character. How’d he come to be there? Why is he packing? How many more tricks does he have up his sleeve, and where did he learn them?

Those are the things you may not know right now. You may be just as shocked as anyone that this random guy has done this. Maybe you meant for something else to happen in that scene. Who cares? Go with it!!!! Because if this character can suddenly insert himself into your novel like that, he’s worth keeping.

So. You can talk to him, of course – do a character sketch, where you let the character tell you about his life. I do this a lot.

But depending on what he says, you may also have to do some research. Let’s say he’s Interpol. Well. What do YOU know about Interpol? Maybe nothing! Maybe you head the term on an old rerun of “Magnum, PI.” So you’ll need to do your research. What you learn in your research will shape who he is. If he’s Interpol, chances are he’s not American – so what is his nationality? That will give you race, religion, ethnicity, beliefs, other languages he speaks, contacts & connections . . . You might even change your mind. You might realize he’s not Interpol at all – instead, he’s Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA). Or Scotland Yard.

Well, then what?! 🙂 More research!

If you hate research, then better stick to the old adage “write what you know.” But even then, there’s going to be research. Let’s say you’re writing about your home town and one of your MCs is an auto mechanic. Do you know anything about that? Or maybe he’s engaged to a woman who runs the local movie theatre. Or teaches for a local college. Research!

I’m doing this right now with Sarah, my female lead in the historical romance I’m working on. The more I research Massachusetts circa 1774, the more real she becomes.

Another example is Rebecca, from my urban fantasy series. Rebecca appeared briefly in one novel, but I was always intrigued by her and finally decided that she needed her own novel. So I wrote it. It sucked. Mostly because I had no idea who Rebecca was. I thought I did:  I really thought I did, but in reality, she was a caricature. Calling her a half-baked cupcake is a kindness; she hadn’t even been put in the oven yet! In truth, she was missing quite a few key ingredients!

So I put it away, embarrassed I’d even let my beta readers see it.

And then one night – about six months later – I had a very clear scene in my mind. Rebecca, squaring off against her husband, only I knew that it wasn’t really her husband, but something else. I grabbed my laptop and started writing – and from the second my fingers touched the keys, it was her voice coming through. Calm, educated, scared to death. In love so deeply with her husband that she might very well drown in it. And yes, a woman living in the 17th century with powers no one could attribute to anything other than witchcraft. It was that voice I’d been waiting for. It simply took her longer than my other characters to bake.

What’s funny is that there’s another character from these novels. a ghost named Shannon, who came to me 100% done and ready to raise all kinds of hell. But Rebecca was more subtle. I needed to do more research on the time period, read more about the witch trials of the time, review the Malleus Maleficarum. And in truth, there was another character who I needed to know more about – her nemesis. They began to come to me in tandem, telling their stories. In truth, I love her nemesis – he’s an extremely complicated character, and makes no excuses for it. But I needed to research him as well. I needed to know how he came to be in her village, and once I understood that . . . I had no problems.

Rebecca is much closer to being done than she was a year ago. I’m still struggling with how to finish her story and embed it into the existing novel without a ton of rewriting – it’ll involve some experimenting with format, and I’m okay with that. Besides, I’m still doing research for both her and Sarah. And with every new fact I learn, the more ‘real’ I know they’re going to be.

Someday, they’ll be cupcakes fresh from the oven. Fully baked. Ready to be frosted and consumed by readers.

At least, I hope so!!!!

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