One of my delights in writing fiction is the freedom to build unusual characters to populate my story. But even these imaginary people must cling to reality enough to make them believable.
Where do they come from? I start with a list of quirks, traits, and behaviors. Then I winnow it down to the essentials needed to describe the role a character will play in my story because people in real life are sophisticated beyond a writer’s capability to describe them. The space needed to portray the complexity of one character would fill the 80,000 words recommended for a novel.
My current story revolves around five people, some who were living, breathing beings and others who were conjured. These five have detailed character interviews and their photos collected in a three-ring binder on my desk. But the folks that live in the background around them were passed over with a light brush. They needed personalities that presented an array of elements: danger, wisdom, practicality, mysticism, any number of things that suit a specific scene. So these persons, who are just passing through, are described in limited fashion, just enough to fulfill a function in moving the action along.
How do these characters happen into my imagination? As I work my way through the more mundane tasks of my day, feeding the cat, sweeping the walk, setting the breakfast table, I think about the void that needs to be filled to flesh one of these passerby characters to make them real inside the reader’s head. This figment can be formed from any number of things: a real person, a memory, an incident, a fleeting sensory perception, a conflict, even a mood. Then these elements begin to stack like coins, one on top of the other, creating a unique actor in my story. So what began as a vague phantom starts to shape inside my head with physical characteristics: a certain color eyes and hair, height, weight but also mannerisms, euphemisms, slang, annoying habits. Things start to take shape.
The most important aspect of these shapeshifters is their name. One of the advantages of being my age is that I’ve had time to encounter some very interesting names just in the course of living. Some magically plopped in my lap: my heroine Patsy Schwartz told me she longed to be Patrice Rogers and her best friend Virginia preferred to be called Jeanne LaFontaine. Others came to me by more serendipitous means. Sister Bertha was fashioned after a former boss’ childhood piano teacher named Bertha Scrimshaw. Who could ask for a better name for a character who needs to be a zealot, a teacher, a disciplinarian? A surgical log from my early days working in a histology laboratory presented me with my bible tottin’ preacher: Nehemiah Foschbusch. That name was meant to evoke a figure standing in the pulpit, fist raised, preaching fire and brimstone. Maxwell Ragsworth simply had to be my crossdresser’s name: he liked that maximum in fine living – women’s bloomers. He is solely a creation of my brain.
Many incidental people meander through my pages. I use them to embellish, to
disrupt, to focus. I can’t wait to meet the next slew of imaginary people in the second installment of Patsy’s story. The plot thickens.