Character driven

J. T. Ellison kills people for a living. When she showed up to dinner one night at a nice restaurant and saw her victim alive and well across the room, she freaked out. Wouldn’t you?

J.T. Ellison is a writer, specializing in thrillers, and when she creates a character, she scans the Nashville society sections of the local magazines and papers to find the perfect victim. She just happened to run into one of those victims in real life—a person who was once just a face on newsprint. JT supplied the rest of the details from the depths of her imagination..

Oooooh, what fun!

Writers make the story real for us when they make the characters real to them. Sometimes writers need a visual prompt before they can imagine a character’s personality, predict their actions, know their tastes, feel their pain.

Some writers are plot driven, but I think I’m character driven. Soon after I read The Outsiders as a kid and fell in love with Soda Pop Curtis, I created my own character. He never appeared in any of my stories I wrote as a teen, and he wasn’t an imaginary childhood friend. But whenever I daydreamed, I imagined this person. Today that character is still very real to me. The perfect character. Maybe he’s just waiting for his story to be written.

When I first started my writing venture, I attended one of J. T.’s writing workshops, sponsored by the Tennessee Writers Alliance, and was giddy at the thought of creating my own character.

I wanted to try J. T. Ellison’s technique of building my character around a real person. Like I don’t do that anyway. I always write about people I know—I just don’t tell them. Taylor Swift and I have something in common. She writes about the bad ones, but I write about the good.

I considered perusing the society sections of the local papers, but we don’t have a society section. Too small town. Instead I trolled Facebook and MySpace and gawked at people I didn’t know. That just seemed too weird.

I even considered filling out a dating match for one of my male characters to see what type of girl would be interested in him. But I thought better of it. What if the real live girl thought she had found the match she had waited for all her life—only to find out it could never be?

Nooooo! That’s not my kind of story. My stories have happy endings. As the writer, I’m in control, so I can make it happen, at least in fiction.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m beginning to think I sound a bit deranged like one of those “characters” on Criminal Minds. Eeek. I hope profilers don’t read my blog and think I’m a serial killer. (It wasn’t even my idea to pull Tony the Tiger from the frosted flakes box. But that’s another story.)

I admire writers who create real characters. If I had to pick one of my favorite masters of character creation in addition to J. T., my choice would be Tyler Perry. The man’s a genius.

All of his characters evoke an emotion, but his Madea character is my favorite. Forever the hopeless romantic, I combine love and comedy. So does Perry, but Perry also uses his very real characters to unleash a profound message. He makes us laugh while, at the same time, makes us look dead in the eyes of truth.

That’s why Perry is one of my favorites. His characters are multi-dimensional. I feel as though I actually know them. They have an emotional impact on me.

What character is your favorite and why? What makes that character real to you?

For more information about J. T. Ellison, click on the book jackets to visit her website. You can also see her in person during the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville October 14-16.

30 thoughts on “Character driven

  1. My favorite character of all time is Allanon of the Shannara series. He’s a dark hero and protector. Terry Brooks took the time to flesh everything out about him, history, flaws, conflicting desires, everything, he’s not perfect and that makes him more real to me. I love characters that aren’t perfect, it makes it easier to imagine them in the real world where things are seldom perfect. I bawled like a baby when Brooks killed him off, couldn’t even see the page anymore. That kind of attachment to a character is what I strive for and what makes me want to read, if the author can’t make me fall in love with his characters in some way or another, I won’t be back.

    • Exactly! I want real too. All the good characters are flawed in some way. I guess we’re attached to flawed characters because we can more readily identify with them.

  2. Jo March. She’s one of my favorite characters of all time. I love her passion and creativity. I think we have a lot in common and I think we’d have “a great many things” to talk about.

    • I am one of the few people left who has not read The Shack. I actually have a copy, and it’s on “my list.” I must make reading a priority again. I’m missing out on too much. Now I’m really curious.

  3. Alice…… as in Wonderland. My grandmother gave the book to take with me when we left the states to live overseas. It took me awhile to read, I was young, but it made a lasting impression. I still have that book. The illustrations are as inspirational as the writing. Alice is brave and enchanting, and the Mad Hatter…. is pretty amazing as well. Crazy, spontaneous, creative, hopeful, and inspirational…….. its a great book…. forget the movie. lol

  4. I’ve never seen the movie, but I remember what my copy of Alice in Wonderland looked / looks like. (My boys may still have it. I hope so.) If I remember correctly, my Aunt Judy gave it to me for Christmas when I was a little girl. The last time I saw it the front cover was tattered and worn from all the times I read it. I used to read constantly while growing up. I was always fascinated by Alice’s sense of adventure. I think she and I would have a little in common too.

  5. Gonna give that some thought on my walk today. My first instinct was “Thelma OR Louise”, but the ending is too dark. I am more optimistic — and more scheming than to get caught. Then I thought “Maria” from “The Sound of Music”.. perhaps. Finally I kinda settled on “Garcia” from “Criminal Minds”.

    T’was at that point that I realized all of my choices were TV/movie characters and not literary — though I suppose those characters have to be written as well. I’m not entirely sure that MY character has even come close to being accurately depicted… I am deeply scarred, highly sensitive, fiercely independent, self-contained, observant, optimistic, romantic, wildly passionate, and terrified of life itself. My core is strong. My outer shell is bullet proof. The middle is mush. Guess I got rather personal there, but somehow I think maybe you knew those things already…

    Off to walk and ponder… Perhaps my character is more simple than I think. I do love Winnie the Pooh.

  6. Yes! Garcia. Great character. I think you two are quite a bit alike. She’s smart, sassy, confident, brave–all the things I wish I were. Good choice.

    I share quite a few of your qualties too. I guess I would be Eeyore to your Pooh though. 🙂 I do have a thing for blue (the blues).

    • Some six-odd miles later, and I still got no answers. Maybe that’s the point. No one – person, character – can be completely captured in words or ideas. I think that’s what keeps the readers returning. Each new work or story line gives a new insight. Much like getting to know people in “real life”, we enjoy peeling back the layers of complex characters.

      Funny thing though, we never entirely know anyone… not even ourselves. 🙂

      • We can’t know ourselves because we aren’t the same people we were yesterday. New experiences alter us. I’m NOT the same person I was a few years ago. In fact, in the last year I’ve changed quite a bit. I’m not sure who this person is–or what this person is going to do next. But I love getting to know people. The best moments I spend in life are just chatting, especially when I can get past the exterior of a person.

  7. I am blanking. I can’t think of a single character like myself right now. I can’t think of anyone horribly awkward who falls down all the time or who continually says the wrong things at the wrong times. Hm. Yeah. Can’t think of any lol.

  8. From my childhood- Ramona Quimby. I wanted her to be real so we could discuss the whole middle child thing. Yes, we would form our own 8-year-old support group! 😉
    Thanks for writing this! Now I’m remembering so many books and series I read when I was a little girl!

    • Ah ha! Ramona! I have thought about here and Beezley–not sure about the spelling–in years. I loved those books. That’s for reminding me. Those were fun reads.

  9. can’t think of any one character. many come to my mind: the 3 main characters from O’ Brother, Where Art Thou, the character Bruce Willis plays in all his movies (not really), a few characters from John Wayne movies would be cool, Crash Davis (Bull Durham), Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) from Paint Your Wagon. That’s all that comes to mind right now.

  10. Oh yeah, I like the characters in Bull Durham too. And I can imagine you liking John Wayne characters. Was Kim Darby in True Grit? I wanted to be her. I like George Clooney as almost any character he plays because he’s so good at being so bad. He’s the charmer.

  11. I like Anne Shirley and Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables. Anne: a dreamer, lively, emotional, talkative, prone to getting into trouble and embarrassing situations, warmhearted, hard-working. Marilla: practical, stern, reserved, loving and generous in a subdued, quiet way. I see both these characters’ traits in my own personality. I laugh when I read their interactions because it sounds just like my own inner dialogue. I guess a lot of women can relate, though. Life experiences and maturation exact practicality and reservedness, but part of you always remains the lively, imaginative girl.

    One of my favorite quotes from Anne:
    “Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them–that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”

    • I like that: “part of you always remains the lively, imaginative girl.” Isn’t it wonderful that books have the power to rejuvenate our youth? When we identify with characters, it’s almost as if we live vicariously through those characters’ lives. Thank you for including the quote. I am such a quote person. The words resonate with me. 🙂

  12. I just love that idea of a bakery murder series. Somehow it always reminds me of you. I mean that in a good way, of course. 🙂 Thanks for reading and responding, Haylee. It means a lot that you would help me out.

  13. I love characters! I have read that Bob Dylan also reads the society pages to form a ballad and personality of a song. I think when I’m reading, I can almost ‘feel’ when the author is writing about someone real or someone they made up. Hillie in “The Help” definitely felt real to me. I’m very careful now about pies. (Love this post, Tee!)

    • Thank you, Kuby. Sometimes I wish I could quit my day job and just write non-stop. Of course, my students are my greatest inspiration. But I’ve met quite a few friends who are true “characters.” Their lives are full of adventure. I love watching their stories unfold. 🙂

  14. Two came to mind. They may be a bit cliche, but when I was introduced to these characters before they became famous, I felt an intant connection.

    The first is Bella from Twilight. Her personality reminds me of my own. Quiet, book lover, can be a bit reclusive. But, she is strong willed and stubborn. She likes to have control, but she can settle with a compromise.

    The other is Max from Maximum Ride. She won’t show her fears. She hates to cry in front of others. Max wants control over everything and fights her way to gain it. She also wants the people she loves to be happy. Max would do anything for her flock, and I would do anything for mine. We both put up brave fronts, but Max delivers a packed punch. We both have an ability to rely on sarcasm in stressful situations. However, I tend to have more trust than Max. Almost too much. That’s a lesson I could learn from Max.

  15. Sadly, I haven’t read Twilight or Maxium Ride, but I have had the pleasure to hear James Patterson speak. He really inspired me and made me WANT to read the series. I can’t seem to get into my reading routine yet. Avid readers prepare themselves to be prolific writers. I am polishing my novel and working on character connection right now. The middle and end are fine, but I feel like the beginning needs a little more polish. I always enjoy reading your comments because they teach me something about what engages readers. Have you been working on your fiction lately?

    • Actually i have as of lately. I have had a bit of time to free write. Im beginning to develop an eye for what I want and the voice of my novel. One component is kind of throwing me for a loop, but if I give it more thought I should think of a creative way to bring the element in.

      I think my feature writing class is helping me with depth in scenes.

      I’ve been reading lots of feature pieces with different types of people. I think even just the small details add that significant touch to character.

      Are you getting ready to send it out?

  16. I am going to be working more closely with the Tennessee Writers Alliance and have recently been elected to the board. One possibility is that we may put together a workshop for this area. I think it would be wonderful if we could spend some time together in a writer workshop to bounce ideas off one another!

    I had hoped to have it ready to go this weekend, but it looks like it will be early this week.

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