|Who are you calling a cow?|
Some people have a natural ability to make up characters from scratch; characters who are believable. People have asked me how I make my characters seem real. How do I make them complex and rounded?
The truth is, they are real. Every one of my works of fiction has begun with someone I know. Even my supporting characters are based on someone I know. Maybe that's because I don't have enough imagination or maybe it's because I have a good memory. Whatever the reason, it is a technique that has worked for me.
However, early in my writing journey I learned how dangerous this technique can be. If your disguise is not strong enough, you could offend and hurt someone.
Like the girl I called a cow.
Jersey, to be precise.
Thankfully my editor at the time moved in the same circles I did and he picked it up. He said, 'Jenny do you realise you have called Hannah (let’s call her Hannah because I'm not going to reveal her true identity to anyone else) a cow in this novel?'
I gave him that ‘Did you drink too much Coke whilst editing my book?' kind of look.
'No, really. The character you've named Jersey. She's Hannah, isn't she?'
It was a statement, not a question. My hand flew to my mouth as I realised what I had done. I thought I had made up a good backstory to explain why the character had such an unusual name, but it hadn't been enough. My editor grinned; he seemed to enjoy the whole thing. 'It's okay,' he said. 'I agree Hannah is a cow. But maybe you should change her character's name or disguise her better.'
I don't think I really called her Jersey to get revenge, but it made me think.
Have you seen those cartoons that say something like, 'I am a writer so choose your words carefully or I will kill you off in my next novel.'? Or 'No, I'm not upset with you. I'm just working out what dastardly things I can do to you in my story.'
I laughed the first time I read one of these clever sayings, never dreaming I would do such a thing, let alone realising I had subconsciously done it.
So how have I learned to disguise characters effectively and keep up my appearance of being a lovely person who thinks badly of no living person?
I work out what it is about that person I want or need in my novel. I work out the core of who they are; the essence of their character. That part I hold tightly. It never wavers. Everything else is changed.
For example, if I need someone who is a bully, such as Rod in Nobody Hugs Rod Green, I use the bully's real life words, actions and motivation but I change everything else: name, appearance, siblings, financial status, background, career, interests, parents – anything non-essential.
It can be fun.
In creating these characters, I also imagine why they might be the way they are. Why is the bully a bully? Is it nurture or nature? What has led him or her to this point in their lives and caused their actions and reactions? Making a character complete in this way and making up their whole story in my mind gives them depth when they come out on the page.
My character, Rod Green, is actually a combination of three people; there were lots of bullies in my class at school. Rolling them all into one made a complex, effective bully who made lots of smart comments.
In this novel, Rod bashes his head against a wall in anguish when his father takes his own life. One of the real life Rod Greens bashed his head on a give way sign when his long-time girlfriend dumped him. Until I wrote this, nobody would have linked the two. They look too different; their situations are too different. But the anguish and the passion of the character are the same.
I'm not game to give you any more detailed examples in case someone like my previous editor or even worse, one of the antagonists in my novels, works out who I'm talking about. So the rest will remain completely disguised. I hope.
Before you think badly of me, I should reassure you that using Rod Green was not revenge on the bullies in my class.
Not consciously, anyway.
Jenny is the wife of Rob Glazebrook and the mother of Micah, Merridy, Clarity and Amelia. They live in the country town of Gundagai with lots of pets. Jenny is the author of 4 published novels with the final 3 of her Aussie Sky Series due out this year. Jenny enjoys inspirational speaking, and is passionate about sharing her writing knowledge and experience and encouraging others in their walk with Jesus. To find out more about her and her books, go to www.jennyglazebrook.com