People Watching and Developing Fictional Characters

I spend more time than I should just staring out windows. It’s not that there’s a lot to see here, but you never know what you’ll miss if you don’t happen to be looking at the right moment.

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You can observe a lot by just watching.

[Yogi Berra]

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You may get real tired watching me,
but I’m not going to quit.

[Harrison Ford]

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Discipline is just doing things
the right way
whether anyone’s watching or not.

[Michael J. Fox]

While I’m watching I try to put into practice what my father once told me when we were out hunting: “Look for what doesn’t belong.” Of course, that had us checking out a lot of stumps on hunting trips, but it’s true — a movement, a shadow or shape that wasn’t there before is often what alerts me to the presence of a visitor in the garden.

I like to people-watch, too. In a stadium or on a bus, train or plane there are wonderful opportunities to study the people around me. (I try not to stare, especially in church!) Some of the characters in my novels bear the traits of people I may have seen during one of those times. A few well chosen quirks or tags can make a character memorable.

My characters are totally fictional, not modelled on anyone specific. Seeing them in my head and developing them into believable people within a story may end up with them being a composite of people I’ve seen or known, but it’s important to me that they behave true to their personalities. I can’t combine a random assortment of personality traits and expect the resulting character to be credible. People may act in peculiar ways, but there’s usually a good reason. The writer’s challenge is to find that reason.

One resource I’ve found valuable for ascribing appropriate traits to my characters is the WRITERS GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS: Profiles of Human Behaviors and Personality Types by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD.
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So, I’m curious. How do you develop your characters? How do you select the key personality traits that govern their actions and reactions? Oh, and are you a people watcher? Do you have a method for camouflaging your observations… or do you just go ahead and stare? ;)

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How do you pick a name (for a cat or a character)?

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DSC02105This is Zeke. Our grandchildren started out calling her ‘Trooper Zeke McGuire’ until it eventually ended up as just plain Zeke — not that either name was particularly appropriate for a female kitten. Of course at the time of naming, everyone thought she was a he, and by the time it was discovered she wasn’t, nobody was about to change the name.

Zeke has attitude. Oh, I know… you’ll tell me all cats do. I’m not a cat person so you could fool me. My life has been filled with dogs for more than sixty years but there’s never been a cat. Zeke and I have the loosest of relationships. She belongs to my son’s family, and has a chocolate Lab in her household to boss around when she feels the need to play her dominant card.

The Lab barks when she wants into the house. If the cat also happens to want in, when the door opens she darts in ahead of the dog. When Zeke wants in and the dog isn’t around to offer assistance, Zeke backs up to the French doors and thuds a rapid tattoo against them with her back paws! For some reason that reminds me of a jackrabbit. Why couldn’t they have named her Jackie? Or then again, wasn’t it the song about Frosty the Snowman that tootled, “Thumpity-thump-thump, thumpity-thump-thump, look at Frosty go?” Why couldn’t they have named her Frosty?

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Zeke’s Chocolate Lab is called ‘Java’. Our own Black Lab is ‘Tynan’, which is Gaelic for ‘the dark one’. No further explanation needed, right? But ‘Zeke’ for a grey, long-haired female house cat???

Finding suitable names for cats or dogs, babies or characters in a novel is a challenge. How can anyone know what will suit them when they first arrive… before they’ve displayed or even developed a personality?

When it comes to characters, I usually have an image in mind. Then it’s a matter of checking the image against a list of potential names — sometimes it’s in my mind, other times it’s in a telephone book, a ‘name your baby’ book, or possibly rolling credits on the movie or television screen. I discard them one by one, depending on who I might have known with a particular name, and whether it suggests either positive or negative connotation or remembered personality traits. It can be a slow process.

I’ve been known to change a character’s name several times in the course of writing a story. That can cause problems of its own. While the ‘search and replace’ function in my word processing software is very handy, it’s not fool proof, as author Denise Jaden reminded me on Facebook yesterday when she said she’d “changed a character’s name using the Find and Replace option in Word, but forgot to add spaces before and after the names. Now I’m coming across words like resebastianable (instead of remarkable). Makes me laugh every time.” Later she added, ” Upon further thought, I think I may keep reSEBASTIANable as my own addition to the English language. I’ll use it whenever anything is extra remarkable.”

How difficult is it for you to find the right name (for a cat, kidlet or character)? Have you ever regretted your choice?

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A Doggy Dilemma

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Not many dogs own forty toys. That’s right, forty! Our dogs have always liked a stuffie or two, a nylabone to chew and the occasional tug toy (to gnaw on; we don’t encourage tugging). But in his half dozen years our Labrador Retriever has managed to accumulate quite the assortment. He adores getting a new toy and never destroys anything, so the numbers keep building.

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It was laundry day recently and there weren’t quite enough dog towels to make a full load, so my hubby decided to toss in the dog’s Christmas toys before packing them away with our decorations. (Yes, he has special Christmas ones. Don’t look so surprised.) It was while extricating them from among the others spilling out of the toy box (of course he has his own toy box) that the quantity prompted us to count them. Forty! That’s an embarrassing number, especially since we have only one dog at present. It was time to do some culling.

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Have you ever tried to clean out your closets or basement in preparation for a rummage or garage sale, only to have family members snatch items from your grasp because you apparently didn’t realize they were still treasured possessions? Uh-huh, you get the picture. One by one he grabbed them from the pile and raced through the house, dropping them in other rooms. We only managed to sneak out one white panda bear that was so grimy I don’t think he recognized it.

He still has thirty-nine toys. He needs a bigger toy box.

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What constitutes success for a writer?

Can. Ch. Shiralee’s Elizabeth Barrett (“Sonnet”)

I’m not keen on being in the spotlight. My comfort zone is more behind the scenes. But since the mid-1970s I’ve lived with show quality purebred dogs. For years I subdued my nerves and stumbled around the show ring with our Shelties. Eventually a good friend (who later became an all breed judge) rescued me, and I soon discovered it was much more exciting to watch from the sidelines as the dogs won.

Our Labrador, “Tynan”, third from left with handler and friend, Jayne Luke

Many exhibitors thrive in the competitive environment – one of my recent manuscripts features a character who is addicted to it – but I’m not one of them. My thrill comes from being the breeder and/or owner of a dog whose quality is well presented, acknowledged and rewarded. I don’t need to be in the ring trying to make it happen.

In the purebred dog fancy success means different things to different people. It can be achieving goals in a breeding program – producing sound minds in sound bodies, and great family companions…

Can. Ch. Riversedge Tynan at Careann (“Tynan”)

owning top quality show dogs that can win trophies and ribbons in competitions…

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or becoming a celebrity (of sorts), perhaps in a movie or magazine.

Yes, that’s our “Tynan” on the cover

In the writing community defining success can be challenging. Many writers labour over their words in private, satisfied by their written expressions in journals and personal memoirs. For some, having their words make a difference to others is the goal as they write devotional material or create encouraging messages for greeting cards. Still others strive for publication of books that will garner great reviews and take their names to the top of bestsellers’ lists.

“For every available bookstore shelf space,
there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space.”

[OutThinkGroup]

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Not everyone reaches a specific goal. Sometimes the criteria for doing so is beyond their control. Sometimes the effort put forth isn’t adequate for the desired result. For me, what’s important is acknowledging my motivation, seeking God’s will in my decision making, setting realistic goals, doing my part to reach them, and enjoying the process en route. That’s a hefty list, but I believe each item on it is crucial if I’m to feel fulfilled and be content with my level of success.

What’s your interpretation of ‘success’ in your current endeavour(s)?

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Patience may be a virtue, but….

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It was nearing dinnertime, at least for our Labrador. Hubby and I wanted to get the Christmas tree up first, so we ignored the blatant hints. Tynan’s a patient dog and finally lay down to wait.

 

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That was hard to ignore! As soon as the tree was secure and before any decorating was begun, his patience was rewarded with his nightly bowl of kibble. Afterwards, in the first bin of ornaments, a bag of old Christmas dog toys was unearthed and he was ecstatic. Dinner and long lost stuffies! Life was good.

Patience may be considered a virtue, but passive patience doesn’t achieve much.  It needs to be accompanied by some kind of purposeful action. If Tynan had settled into an unobtrusive corner to wait, he might be waiting still. Instead, while he didn’t beg, agitate or annoy, he made his presence something we couldn’t ignore for very long. He was just too appealing.

We aspiring authors could learn a lesson from him.

What do you do while you wait for a response to your query letters or submissions?

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That ‘Canine Wrecking Ball’ again

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I’m offering an updated November 2008 post today, followed by a few others from the archives during the next two weeks. I’ll be taking a brief blogging hiatus, but will be back with a fresh post on November 13th.

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Have you ever lived with a dog? A big one, that thinks he’s a person? We’ve had many dogs through the years, mostly the small-to-middling sized Shelties that I’ve bred, trained and exhibited for over thirty years. But a few years ago we returned to the breed of my childhood, Labrador Retrievers, and I’m beginning to realize our lives will never be the same!

 

At almost 90 pounds, our current five-year-old male Lab still has a puppy mind in a powerhouse body.  While he’s mentally sweet and gentle, physically he’s sometimes like a wrecking ball in demolition mode.

“Wild dog coming through,” I bellow as he hurdles into the house to greet everyone and slides precariously across the kitchen floor. “Grab your coffee mug (or wine glass, as the case may be),” I yell as his tail swings in a happy arc that clears the coffee table. “Watch out!” I warn as he cavorts through the room flinging his toys in every direction. “Sorry about that. Here’s a towel,” I say when he’s planted an apologetic kiss on hand, cheek, or even mouth (yuck!), and drooled on someone’s clean outfit. He can’t imagine there’s anyone who doesn’t welcome his enthusiastic attention.

Granted, we only inflict him on those who adore him, and he isn’t always on the move. He loves to crash periodically with his toys, and like most youngsters he’s quite angelic when he’s asleep.

During those moments I’ve been known to say that a second dog might be nice. After all, we haven’t had a singleton dog around the house for years. We lived with as many as five Shelties at one time.

That roar you heard was my husband. “One is definitely enough!”

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Writing and Fence Building

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Fifteen years of shade and encroaching moss did their damage. The fence around our 30’ x 40’ dog yard wobbled like a bobble head if we leaned against it, and only a few of the posts kept it upright. Fortunately our dog wasn’t an escape artist, but there was very little keeping him from a romp in the neighbourhood. Replacement couldn’t be put off any longer.

One man, four months and $1200 later, the old fence has been dissembled section by section, and a new one put up in its place. The yard needed to be safe and usable during construction so nails were carefully removed from the old boards as they came down, and the wood was stacked outside of the yard. Old wire fencing temporarily filled each gap as it was created. It’s been painstakingly slow work, but – halleluia! – the job is almost done, with just a few cosmetic tasks left.

Each time I took a progress photo to send to our family I found myself comparing my husband’s fence building to my novel writing endeavour.

  • The initial commitment
  • Planning and research
  • Calculating and obtaining the necessary materials
  • Starting the work, and keeping going despite bad weather and interruptions
  • Taking down less than perfectly cut boards and redoing them so the next ones will fit properly
  • Slowly building the sections and putting everything together until only one final gap is left
  • Crafting the closure
  • Trimming and refining the finished product.
  • Taking pride in a job well done

Yes, there are similarities.  What other forms of construction can be compared to novel writing? Piecing a quilt? Composing a song? Planning a Sunday School lesson?

Is the existence of such similarities enough to prove a theory that formulas or templates can be used to produce almost anything? Then at what point do creations cease to be art? When does our writing stop being original and become just another fence board?

Oh, my! I’ve digressed a long way, haven’t I? I should be content that the dog can’t find his way into the creek or the neighbour’s garden and stop this mental meandering.

By the way, have you built any fences lately? Finished writing any novels? :)

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