Yesterday, I had an unusual surprise. HH was out running around, and a car pulled into our driveway that I didn’t recognize. A woman got out and came to knock on our door. I didn’t recognize her. But I greeted her and she said, “You won’t remember me. I’m the mother of a boy you taught the very first year you were at Waynedale Elementary.”
That was fifty years ago, at least. But the thing is, once I could place her, I did recognize her, and I remembered her son. Jeff. A bright, funny, neat kid. Jeff’s run into some health issues, and he’s having a hard time. His mother’s worried that she’s going to outlive him. She started going through things of his that she saved.
When he was little–like in kindergarten–he started keeping short, little journals. His first kindergarten teacher was STRICT, and he hated school. Didn’t want to go. My first year, I taught first grade, so Jeff was in my class. His mother said Jeff wrote, “My new teacher’s young and energetic and fun. I’m going to love school.” And she said he loved it from that time on. She stopped at my house to let me know what I difference I made in Jeff’s life. And it made me happy.
But mostly, I think she stopped because she wanted somebody out of the norm to talk to. She stayed for more than half an hour, and she told me all about Jeff’s life. He lost his way when his wife divorced him. Got into some bad habits. And then he recovered, but she’ll always wonder if his slip caused his health problems. She’s a good, loving mother who didn’t pull any punches or sugarcoat anything. And I’m glad she stopped. I really like her, and I wish her and Jeff the best.
It made me think about how I create the characters in my books. None of us truly escape our pasts. We might put them behind us, overcome them, but they always help shape us. That’s why that’s where I start when I create a character wheel. I start with family. The mother–what did she do? what was she like? did they get along? what was their relationship? What about the dad? Same questions. Brothers? Sisters? Aunts, uncles, cousins? Did any of them affect my main character? Childhood friends? Enemies? Was he bullied?
Once I work my way past childhood, I turn to education. Did he love school? Hate it? Did he go to college or take a training course? Did he have a mentor? What’s his career now? Is he a success? Struggling?
Now, I’m current. And I ask, “Where does he live? What does it say about him? What does he drive? What does that say about him?”
Is he in a relationship? Happy or not? What were his past relationships? Why did they end?
I like to give him two friends. One, a reflector he can talk to, share things with. One with a different take on life than he has so that they disagree sometimes.
I want to know his quirks. habits, fears, and hobbies. Does he always run his hand through his hair when he’s thinking? Does he rub his jaw? Does he have a quick temper? Or is he easy-going? Does he putter on a used car? Is he obsessed with his lawn?
Then, if possible, I want to know his enemies or competition or opponents. How do they get in his way? Annoy him?
And finally, I like to know what the character wants and why.
And I always list his name, age, nickname, eye color, hair color, height and build. So that when I describe him in the story, or five books later, I don’t accidentally change the way he looks.
Once I finish the character wheel, I pretty much know that person, and I can start writing him.
Every author uses a different system for bringing their characters to life. This is mine. It works for me and better yet, gives me ideas on things to do with him. Hopefully, you’ve found what works for you.