An Author In Search of a Character

I’ve recently jumped in at the deep end of book 3 of my “Daughters of Ireland” series (Lady of Seduction, Caroline’s story, out in June 2011!), and I’m finding my way to really knowing the characters. Some authors have great success with character outlines and things like that, but the only way I can do this is to actually sit down and start writing the book. After about 50 or so pages (about where I’m at now) I have a clearer vision of them and what they’re all about, what motivates them and what they really want, and their flaws too. I live with them and they start to be my friends (or my enemies, depending on how stubborn they’re being!). Of course, they also sometimes surprise me by insisting on taking the plot in a new direction or doing something out of left field…

How does my vision of them start to take shape? Well, it starts with names. They have to be just right, which can sometimes be a challenge. Especially in historical stories, where there is often a limited range of plausible names. (I’m also plotting out an Elizabethan-set story right now, and for women in this period it’s an endless parade of Katherines, Marys, and Janes and Williams, Edwards, and Roberts!). I like to find a “period” name that sounds right and isn’t jarring to readers. Sometimes there were unusual names, to be sure–also in the Elizabethan era, the Devereaux family had a tradition of naming daughters “Essex”, and Jane Grey’s husband Guildford Dudley was named after his mother’s family.

I’m not sure there were as many men in the Georgian/Regency period whose names could be shortened easily to Sin, Devil, or Hawk as we romance writers seem to think! 🙂 But the important thing is 1) it fits the character, and 2) if it is unusual, explain it and have a good reason for it. I start by flipping through baby name books, old primary resources of the period, Internet sites, etc, until I find the right one. Once they’re names, it’s on to…

How do they look??? Now this is the fun part! I scan websites and magazines for photos of hunky actors (tough, but a diligent author must make sacrifices for the art…) and actresses in beautiful gowns to get an idea of my characters’ appearance. Then I work on…

Putting them into their setting. Setting is huge part of Lady of Seduction. Our hero was a villain in book 2, Duchess of Sin. After a terrible fire at the end of Duchess, he retreats to a crumbling medieval castle on an isolated Irish island, very stormy and Gothic and spooky. There are ruins, secret passages, and locked tower rooms, all sorts of great stuff like that. The setting has to become its own character in a way, so I researched islands like Inishturk and Caher to devise the ruined monastery and envision the harbor and coast as well as the castle.

I put inspirational pictures on the cork board by my desk so I can keep all this in mind as I work! It helps me fall into their world and I can really embark on the adventure of a new book.

What is your process for finding characters? And were you a big fan of Gothics like I was? (I gobbled up Victoria Holt stories when I was a kid!)

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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Kim in Hawaii
12 years ago

Thanks, Amanda, for the post! I’ll answer the second question. I enjoy Gothic elements to a story. My grandmother lived in Devon and I spent my childhood summers with her. We toured local castles, climbed prehistoric stones, and picnicked Dartmoor (setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles – a Gothic mystery) and tour of local castles. Plus her house was a bit gothic with its creaking staircase, dark corners, and antique furniture. The military has enabled me to travel throughout the British Isles – the West Country (Devon and Cornwall) remains the most Gothic to me!

Surprisingly, Hawaii has some Gothic-themes in its history. And the open-air temples are a bit eerie, too!

Jane Austen
12 years ago

With the book I’m writing now I knew some names had to be certain things simply because of the title of the book and the driving idea behind it. My male lead had to be named David, but since he’s Welsh I wanted the Welsh spelling Dafydd and I wanted the Welsh nickname Dai, which is pronounce “Die”. So the fact that Dafydd is Welsh also drove his appearance. Two of my characters are Greek/Egyptians and have crazy first names like Isis and Aristotle because their parents are eccentric and rich. Their ancestry also drives their appearance. As for my lead Catharine or Khaki as I call her I really wanted her to be tall, with dark hair and blue eyes because I like that combination. Just like I like the combination of blonde hair with brown eyes. But to be honest I can never relate with blonde heroines. I always end up making their hair dark in my mind. I’m not sure why, but I just do. I do like the idea of hanging pictures to remind me of my characters, but now I will have to search through magazine and find my characters. I think I could find Dafydd in an LL Bean or Eddie Bauer catalog. Khaki will be a little harder since she’s no fashion queen just an ordinary scholar who day dreams a lot. Aristotle is probably Abercrombie and Fitch while Isis could be a Victoria’s Secret model.

My story is a modern day update of Northanger Abbey, but of course there has to be some sort of gothicness in it with the crazy Welsh castle Dafydd’s family lives in and the amazing art collection they have. My book makes fun of art theft and the Da Vinci Code and its spin offs instead of murder and gothic romances.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

JA, I think your book sounds like great fun.

Kim, I envy you your summers in Devon! What a magical time that must have been. Interesting that you’ve found the Gothic in Hawaii.

Amanda, my character search is very similar to yours, although I rarely start writing until I have a name and image and at least part of the setting. I have a story idea, though. Like you, I never fill out character sheets – what do I care what color is my hero’s favorite? But to aspiring writers I say, if character sheets help you, use them!

I usually write a backstory for my characters. Just a stream of consciousness thing. I guess it is my version of creating a “psychosocial history” which I used to do in my mental health therapist days.

And I DEVOURED Victoria Holt!

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

Kim, I was lucky enough to vacation in Hawaii a couple of times, and I was also struck by the atmospheric feeling of the islands (especially some of the historic sites I visited!). I actually came up with an idea for a sort of Hawaiian “Jane Eyre” type story, but I’m not sure who I could get to buy it. 🙂

Diane, you’re so right–whatever works for you as a writer, use it! It’s never the same for every author, and it can be a long trial to find what really works. I’m such a pantser, but it all works out in the end…

And I was just trying to remember the title of a Holt novel I used to love. It featured a beleagured heroine (of course!) hunky twins (one the hero, one not so good), and Etruscan tombs. Does anyone know which one this was?

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Ahem. Isn’t there some sort of announcement you have to make, Amanda?

Jane Austen
12 years ago

Diane, you’ve read the beginning of the book before. I’ve reposted what I’ve rewritten to my facebook page as a note.

Amanda, Janet has me intrigued. What could this announcement be?

12 years ago

I completely inhaled Victoria Holt’s gothics. Loved them!

Ammanda and Carolyn–HUGE, HUGE, congratulations to you both!!!!

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Yep, Carolyn has TWO announcements to make.

This is such a fascinating topic. I too get to know my characters within the first few pages and their physical appearance is vague for quite a long time; generally I envision gestures and movements first.

I like Gothic elements too but I can’t write them with a straight face. I always come up with things like the secret in the attic being the Gentlemen’s Radical and Knitting Association, where they knit stockings and listen to Tom Paine being read aloud.

Jane Austen
12 years ago

Janet, I suggest you attempt to read Trust and Triumph by Norma Gatje-Smith. I’m convinced her husband paid through the nose to get it published. There are gothic elements much like the attic being a radical knitting society. Some people who love Austen cannot get through this P & P sequel. It’s too ridiculous (Kitty and Mary perform an exorcism on Pemberley and there is a 7 foot detective who steals the Darcy’s cook and mirrors on the ceilings in Captain Fitzwilliam’s Georgian plantation home….it’s classic. I think you’d find it amusing).

Carolyn, what’s the news?

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

LOL, Janet! Yes, Carolyn and I are both RITA finalists today, so yay us. 🙂 Lots of other friends also got “the call” (including Deb Marlowe, so is my anthology co-author and now my rival!) so it’s a fun, fun day.

And I would totally read a book about the Gentlemen’s Radical and Knitting Association 🙂

Jane George
12 years ago

Yeah for Amanda & Carolyn!!!

And I was totally warped at an impressionable age by Victoria Holt.
Looking forward to meeting more characters.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

What a wonderful day for the Riskies! Amanda and Carolyn and Carolyn!!! Woot!
Float on air, ladies.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Michelle Willingham, our frequent and not always Regency, Risky guest is also a RITA finalist in Historical Romance!

For those of you who are not part of Romance Writers of America, today is the day the finalists are announced for our highest awards. The RITA is for published works; the Golden Heart is for unpublished.

In the romance commmunity this is a very (blanking) big deal (to borrow a phrase from our VP.

Cara King
12 years ago

Huge congratulations to Amanda and Carolyn!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I never really did Gothics, I confess. I preferred chatty to brooding, sunny to gloomy, and Darcy to Rochester (and Rochester to Heathcliff…by a mile.)


Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

Stopping by to say I don’t just read Gothics, I write them!!

And a big squeeeeeee and CONGRATS to Deb Marlowe, Amanda McCabe, Carolyn and Michelle W !! I LOVED all of these books and I am so pleased to see them get the recognition they deserve!