I don’t know how it is for other writers, but for me, most of my stories start with a character. Someone pops up in my head and starts telling me their story. During their narrative, other characters will occasionally jump in to add their POV. That’s how I get to know the people I write about.
Within the normal course of things, I tend to not develop a mental picture of the character until the time comes to write it down. Then, they step out of the shadows and let me glimpse them. But, usually, through the beginning stages of story development, the character is only a voice to me. I can hear their personality in it. The way they convey their POV often gives me insight into their thought process. But visually, things are all a bit vague.
It’s a bit like getting to know someone online.
You can spend hours and hours talking and know everything about them, but only have a fuzzy mental picture of what they look like. And then, when you see a photo or meet in person, their actual physical presence slots itself into the picture of them in your head.
That’s how my characters usually develop. From the inside out.
As an example, Grace, the MC from my short story Big Teeth: a dark fairytale, first came to me as a whisper in my ear.
“Everyone thinks they know my story,” she said. “They’re wrong.”
Her voice was angry, even though she spoke softly. It carried the weight of pain, and not a small amount of despair. I knew immediately that something terrible had happened to her, and that it had been covered up. Not only did the initial act break her heart, the lies compounded it. Made her bitter. While rage bubbled within her, it didn’t really show. She felt hopeless. As if there was nothing she could really do.
Except tell the truth.
It was only later, while in the midst of writing Big Teeth, that I learned that Grace has blonde hair, or hazel eyes. I could describe her to you in more detail, if pressed. But the most important facets of her person are her emotions.
Most of the time, I’m content to leave my character descriptions a little blurry. It’s then up to the reader to bring them into focus in their mind.
But every once in awhile, a picture of a character comes to me first. Either inspired by an actual photo I see somewhere, or my subconscious plucks a stock image from my head of someone… anyone. It could be a person I’ve seen on TV, or in a movie, or in a magazine. Wherever.
For whatever reason, my brain then decides this person is the physical embodiment of my character and when I picture the landscape of their story, it’s that person in their role.
Like my brain has decided to make itself a casting agent for the movie in my head.
Then I get to know their voice after, the way I do any other character, but they are inextricably linked to that visual image for me forever.
Until recently, this was a rare phenomenon. 99.9% of the time, I developed characters the way I described happening with Grace. They began as a voice, then gained a personality, and mannerisms and actions. They grew outward, until the last thing to come to me was their physical being. The way a flower blooms, starting from a tiny bud.
However, something different happened with A Single Heartbeat.
As I mentioned in my guest blog over at fellow author Nic Starr’s site, the idea for that story came first from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Well, it began there, and then my brain ran with it.
Perhaps because the story began with an idea and not a voice, the characters of Will and Reese developed quite differently.
I’m a linear writer. Some authors can jump around the narrative, writing dribs and drabs, and then piece the story together like a quilt. I can’t do that. When I sat down to write A Single Heartbeat, I began with Reese staring out over the city.
That image, Reese in his posh penthouse, brooding over a glass of good scotch, came very vividly to me. And in it, Reese’s reflection appeared in the sparkling clean window. Before he had even opened his mouth, I had a visual of my bored, debonair vamp. And he looked very much like the dashing Tom Ellis, especially as he appears on the show Lucifer.
When he did start speaking, the voice I heard in my head sounded very like that character too.
Their stories and personalities, however, are quite different. Where Lucifer loves owning his club and revels in everything life has to offer, Reese has grown bored with existence. He’s more stoic, more closed off. On Lucifer, Chloe reigns in Lucifer’s more outrageous tendencies. She grounds him. Will, on the other hand, pushes Reese out of his rut.
Still, when picturing Reese, I will always see Tom.
Though it isn’t my usual process, I went with it. I had no choice, really, since once I began typing, A Single Heartbeat came out all in one fell swoop.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, when Will also arrived with a very solid physical presence. Will is a work hard, play harder (when he gets the chance) type, so it stands to reason that my brain would conjure a face that calls that duality to mind. Especially given the source material from which the idea for A Single Heartbeat sprang.
It was, after all, James Marsters’ undeniable sensuality that first sparked my ‘What if…?’ mechanism. And Will’s attitude, at least outwardly, is very similar to Spike’s. He’s confident to the point of almost being cocky, a badass with a soft heart. A little morally grey.
“If you’re looking for fun, there’s death, there’s glory, and sod all else, right?” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5, Ep 7 ‘Fool for Love’)
While Will isn’t quite as devil-may-care as Spike, he enjoys being a hunter. He loves the thrill of a good fight. Unlike Reese, he’s not one for brooding. He doesn’t see the point in bottling up his emotions or stewing about slights. He is guarded, and yet wears his emotions on his sleeve. More contradictions.
I think that’s why James Marsters is the perfect face for Will.
(A note about the cover for A Single Heartbeat: You might notice that the models that appear on the cover don’t immediately call either Tom Ellis or James Marsters to mind. Unfortunately, it’s not realistic for me to have those two very handsome men pose for a shoot for me. As much as I would love that! So, compromises had to be made. While the models aren’t ringers, I thought they were a pretty decent approximation. What do you think?)
Once A Single Heartbeat was finished, I figured I would move on to the next thing and go back to my usual way of character building. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with starting off with a visual and working inward. I know a lot of writers do it all the time. It just isn’t my usual way, and I thought the circumstances of how A Single Heartbeat came into being lent themselves to it.
But then I realized that story was only the first in a series. That there were more stories to tell in that world.
No big deal, right?
Yet, when the story that became A Kiss of Brimstone began to unfurl in my head, it once again came along with images.
Andras, my big, gorgeous demon lord whose intimidating looks hide layers of deep loyalty and genuine sweetness, walked into my mind’s eye wearing the visage of a very familiar actor. Ben, on the other hand, emerged from the story shadows slower. Not shy, or hesitant, but wary. Slow to trust.
Though Ben and Will are both hunters, their style and personalities are quite different. Will has a tendency to go with his gut and not question it. Ben, however, questions everything.
If Ben had a motto, it would probably be ‘Carelessness will get you killed. Always have a plan.’ (Which is why it was so much fun for me to put him in a situation where his world view was being tilted off its axis.)
In a couple of months (if not sooner… still waiting on an official releases date) when you read A Kiss of Brimstone, will you be picturing Andras & Ben the same way I do?
And now that A Kiss of Brimstone is in my editor’s hands, I am gearing up to get to work on the next installment of the Out in the Shadows series. At the moment, I’m calling it A Touch of Grace, though that’s a working title and subject to change.
Though the main characters featuring in A Touch of Grace both appear very briefly in A Kiss of Brimstone, I still know relatively little about them. Beyond what they look like, of course.
Raziel is an angel, one of Andras’ fellow celestials. So far, he is very much an enigma, and I can tell it’s going to take some time to get him to lower his guard and let anyone in. Even me.
Jesse, on the other hand, is an open book. Some characters are like that. They come to you and the entirety of their being just spills into your head like sunshine. That’s Jesse. Despite having dealt with some truly terrible things in his life, he is sweet and unaffected. Unlike the thick walls Raz has built, Jesse has none at all.
I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how they get on.
(None of this is to say that readers must picture my characters this way. If they get a different mental picture when they read A Single Heartbeat, or any of my other stories, that’s fine. But, when they were born inside my head, this is how they looked.)
At the end of the day, whether you start from the inside out, the outside in, piece them together like a patchwork quilt, or construct them like a robot, I think the important thing is that you give them dimensions. Some authors use character sheets, write backstory, and lay out a genealogy. Others only explore what gets shown on the page. I tend to get to know my characters like they’re someone I’ve met and we’re becoming friends. I let them reveal themselves to me as they feel comfortable.
My characters feel real to me. I hope they feel real to the reader as well.
Have you read A Single Heartbeat? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts about Will & Reese. Is this how you picture them?
If you haven’t read it yet, you can pick up a copy from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or directly from MLR Press!