Thursday, June 20, 2013

Creating characters that come alive and jump off the page

Plot lines don’t mean squat without memorable characters.

Characters don’t even really have to be people. Seriously, they can be machines, aliens, animals, plants, whatever. But if they don’t drive the story, then they aren’t doing their job, and they might as well not even be there.

I’ve read science fiction stories and thrillers where things moved along at a good pace from point A to point B, but because the characters were one-dimensional, the trip was forgettable.

I base almost all my characters on real people, either people that I know or have met somewhere along the way. One of the characters in my supernatural thriller, LILITH, was an aircraft carrier called the USS Gerald R. Ford. That’s right—it was a ship. Hey, they don’t call ships “she” for nothing. Since the Ford was not yet commissioned at the time, I based it on the USS Harry S. Truman, where I had spent several days at sea. Believe me, those ships have personalities all their own, and I tried to bring that across in LILITH by describing things I had experienced while aboard the Truman.

The character of Hunter Singleton, one of the main protagonists of my stories, is based mainly on me, but also on other people I have known. He has a back story, he has a distinct personality, he has interests, dislikes, quirks, certain physical qualities—he even speaks a certain way. You can always tell when Hunter is talking, because he’s a smart ass. Kind of like me. He’s adopted, half Cherokee Indian and half white. He’s a reporter for a national news agency. He knows Kung Fu and doesn’t mind using it when necessary. And he’s usually up to his eyeballs in trouble.

Lisa Singleton, Hunter’s wife, also has certain physical characteristics and personality traits that distinguish her from other female characters. For instance, she’s a park ranger and a black belt in Wing Chun Kung Fu, which she taught to her husband. Her father is Chinese and her mother African American. She’s quite beautiful, like her mother, and small, but also pretty handy with her fists as well as with a gun. If you piss her off, she will take you down.

Lilith, the main antagonist, is more of a conglomeration of different people. I tried to make her evil, but also gave her some faults and frailties, and a back story that will make readers want to sympathize as well as be repulsed. Awesome combination!

There’s a back story with Hunter and Lisa as a couple, and I plan on getting more deeply into their personal stories as they progress through each adventure. The next book to feature them, PRIMORDIAL, is still in the writing stage.

Characters that are integral to the story should have traits that set them apart from other characters—physical traits, quirks, flaws, whatever. They should all speak with a different voice, as well, though that is sometimes hard to do. Characters who I know will only be in one scene I don’t spend as much time on, because they won’t be around long enough for anyone to really care. They’re just there to help move the plot along.

I also like to give flaws to my characters, because real people have flaws. For instance, Hunter has an inordinate fear of flying. As do I. I do not like airplanes, or even tall ladders.

In my latest book, GOD PARTICLE, my protagonist is a 16-year-old girl. Not being a 16-year-old girl myself, I had to draw from people I know, like my own wife and daughter, for instance, who helped me immensely with the character. Chloe is Chinese, adopted as a baby by a loving Swiss/American family. Hence the last name ‘Johansson.’ Not too many Chinese people have the name ‘Johansson.’

Chloe is also extremely intelligent, already a freshman engineering student at MIT. But she is a little bit spoiled. And selfish. And maybe a little hard headed.

Characters also need some type of friction within the story, something to overcome that will make them grow and reach beyond their own self-imposed boundaries. Just like in real life. Chloe nearly becomes overwhelmed by the events that take place in the GOD PARTICLE, but she has an amazing inner strength that helps get her through. Plus, she prays a lot.

Lively characters are extremely important to my novels. The stories are usually centered on the characters I create, and things move forward because of their actions, or inaction. Without realistic, memorable characters, the literary world can be a bland place, indeed.

For more information on my latest books, find me on the web at

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