The crit group eventually parted ways, but Carla and I have remained the best of friends and continue to trade the occasional critique while alternately celebrating and commiserating over various aspects of the writing life. Believe me, nothing beats having a friend along on this wild and crazy ride!
Please join me in welcoming Carla to Seekerville. You’re in for a treat!
Hello Seekers! Thanks for letting me make a stop at Seekerville! It’s always fun to have a day on the island and hang out with so many lovely (and handsome, if there are male guests out there today) and talented writers. You all inspire me and make me laugh, and the food is always a temptation!
Myra asked me to talk about how I chose my characters and the setting for my debut book, Chasing Lilacs. I started the book so long ago that I had to really concentrate to remember just exactly how it all began.
This idea sprang from my own childhood curiosity when people often whispered about so-and-so having a nervous breakdown and getting shock treatments. It wasn’t something discussed openly, and for a kid with an overactive imagination, I dreamed up all kinds of scenarios.
- What if a young girl in the fifties has a mom with “nerve” problems and goes for shock treatments?
- How would that play out in her family and in her social circle?
- What if the shock treatments went awry and the mom took her own life?
- How would the family and neighbors react to this?
- What would be the path of coping and healing for the daughter left behind?
Although I don’t use a specific tool for developing characters, I knew that certain character types were essential to drive the story.
- Mentors (sometimes called advisors or helpers)
- Antagonists / Villains
- Those who are foolish, selfish, or flawed (unlikable maybe, but not horrible people)
- Some neutral characters such as bystanders or enforcers (law officers, school principal)
I knew the protagonist almost immediately. An adolescent girl called Sammie. She would be tall, thin, responsible, not yet savvy about boys but getting close. In others words, ordinary. But I also made her book smart and gave her the ability to pop off the occasional sarcastic remark. She usually regretted it, but she wasn’t afraid to stick up for herself. THEN I gave her all these problems to work out and brought the other characters on stage.
Here are a few of my favorites and the roles they played.
Rita: (Flawed, sympathetic) A fragile, yet beautiful mom. Sammie is somewhat captivated by her mom which makes it more heart-wrenching to see her mom suffer.
Joe: (Strong, but flawed) A blue-collar dad with quiet strength, Joe grieves in a completely opposite way from Sammie by retreating into his pain and thereby ignoring the needs of his young daughter.
Tuwana: (Sidekick/best friend) I had fun with Sammie’s friends. Tuwana is vain, selfish, opinionated, and a typical blonde cheerleader—the polar opposite of Sammie which created great conflict when they were together and allowed me to give them different growth arcs. Her redeeming quality was that in being so shallow, she was quick to forgive and remained loyal to Sammie.
Cly: (First love/soul mate) Another character who was fun to give depth to. A Fonz type at the beginning, he has his own baggage and ultimately is the one who understands Sammie and becomes a rock solid friend. Late in the story, he assumes the role of rescuer.
Vadine: (Villainess) Sammie’s aunt. She’s the character who everyone loves to hate. And indeed, she appears to have no redeeming qualities. I enjoyed developing this character and found her the most challenging because I believe there is a reason why people are awful. By not disclosing her motivation and past pain until late in the story added a layer of suspense.
Goldie: (Mentor) A genteel, older woman who loves unconditionally and offers sound advice, but lets Sammie “get it” on her own. She’s the woman we all would love for a grandmother.
Slim: (Mentor) An older man who mentors not only Sammie, but her dad and Cly. He has a mysterious past and ends up with his own subplot. MY FAVORITE CHARACTER. This was not planned, but as the story developed so did my love for this rough-on-the-outside, yet gentle sage.
This isn’t a complete list, but you get the idea. Having a role, though, isn’t enough. Your characters must also be unique: Speech, pet phrases, clothing style, social status. And quirky! Not in an outrageous way necessarily, but something that sets them apart. In Chasing Lilacs I have a gum smacker, one who sucks on cherry life savers, one who compulsively takes lilac bubble baths, one who counts things. The fun thing about quirks is that you can also use them as metaphors or triggers that move the story forward. (I think that’s a whole ‘nother post).
And of course, you must have character goals and motivations. I don’t write all this down for each character, even though Myra has supplied me with her famous spreadsheets and I love them! They’re so organized and pretty. But I get bogged down if I sketch in more than one or two characters. I’m too impatient to get on with writing the book.
One last thing on characters. I like to introduce them early in the story, even though they may not make an appearance until later. Aunt Vadine, for example, is mentioned on page 11, but doesn’t make her physical entrance until page 124. She’s crucial to the plot so I give her a few mentions—enough that the reader anticipates this character will show up and it won’t be a good thing. This early mention makes for a smoother read later because you don’t have to stop the story and explain that Aunt Vadine lives in Midland and works in a truck stop and was unpleasant the last time Sammie met her.
If you haven’t surmised by now, this novel captured me in every sense of the word. It was the “novel of my heart.” Partly because it dealt with my childhood curiosity about “nerve” problems, but also because I chose to set it in a place similar to where I grew up. The place itself was unique—a close-knit petroleum camp with company housing—each one a cookie cutter of the others in the camp. No “keeping up with the Joneses” here. What I remember the most about living in this idyllic setting was the freedom we had to be kids—there were few dangers and everyone knew and watched out for the others. Oh, if only we could go back to those simpler times.
And for a season that’s what I did when I wrote this story. It’s one that has been in my heart and in the making for six years. I’ve been smacked down with rejection and it’s gone under the writer’s knife many times, but I am now shouting “Hallelujah! It’s here!”
Before I go (or get kicked off for being so long-winded), I just want to say—Write the novel of your heart. Let it simmer and develop. Then pick a cast of characters that will dance off the pages. Write your heart out and don’t give up. In the grand scheme of things, six years is not really all that long. And it is worth more than words can convey to hold your debut novel in your hands.
Thank you for having me here! It’s always a pleasure!
About Carla Stewart: A two-time ACFW Genesis winner, Carla Stewart is a Guideposts Writers Workshop alumna and has been published in Guideposts, Angels on Earth, and several regional magazines and anthologies. Her debut novel, Chasing Lilacs, releases in June 2010 with FaithWords. Carla enjoys a good cup of coffee, weekend getaways with her husband, and the antics of their six grandchildren.
About Chasing Lilacs: Elvis is on the radio and summer is in the air. Life in the small Texas community of Graham Camp should be simple and carefree. But not for Sammie Tucker. Sammie has plenty of questions about her mother’s “nerve” problems. About shock treatments. About whether her mother loves her.
As her life careens out of control, Sammie has to choose who to trust with her deepest fears: Her best friend who has an opinion about everything, the mysterious boy from California whose own troubles plague him, or her round-faced neighbor with gentle advice and strong shoulders to cry on. Then there’s the elderly widower who seems nice but has his own dark past.
Trusting is one thing, but accepting the truth may be the hardest thing Sammie has ever done.
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