Sunday, June 17, 2012

Discovering Characters

Writers never know when an idea for a new character will strike. Sometimes we struggle to pull one from our imagination. Sometimes they are inspired by real people.

Last week my day job (I'm a programmer for an automation firm) took me and a co-worker to Toledo, Ohio. That's a twelve hour drive from Tupelo, Mississippi. Thursday was a hectic day trying to get the job completed in time to get home for Father's Day (which we managed to do). All hope of working on my novel went out the window when the minor changes we were supposed to make turned into a substantial rewrite of their application. I was fretting that I would not have time to connect with my readers, or work on my new blog still in its infancy.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the people we met at our customer's facility. It was a lab and they appeared to be your run of the mill technical staff. Educated and polite. Friendly. We had two primary contacts: one was a very clean-cut young man who was clearly into physical fitness. The other was a bit older, tall, and mild-mannered. I had envisioned him being comfortably in the middle class with a wife and kids and a nice home.

It was late afternoon when my co-worker lamented the fact that he had to leave his gun at home because Ohio doesn't recognize his Mississippi conceal-carry permit. We had been cautioned not to be out after dark because the neighborhood around our hotel was not in the best part of the city.

"Ask him," the younger of the two said, hitching his thumb at the tall one, in response to my co-worker's question about the Ohio carry permit.

The tall one flashed a devious smile. "I don't register anything," he said. "They'll take all those when the time comes."


My ears perked up. My fingers stopped moving on the keyboard. This mild-mannered man had just uprooted my idea of his life outside the lab. Suddenly his two-story home with a wife and kids had a basement. The basement had secrets. Secrets he doesn't want the government to know about because he doesn't trust the government.

I know lots of people who don't trust the government. I prefer a small, less-intrusive government myself. Pretty much everyone I know owns at least one gun. I own a few. This is the South. Guns are ingrained in our culture. It wasn't that this mild-mannered man owned guns, nor was it that he chose not to register them, that piqued my interest. It was that I hadn't expected it. In just a few short hours I had created an image of him, without even realizing I had done so, and he shattered that image with a simple statement. Two short sentences transformed him from a background character into someone who could drive a plot.

Fiction should grab us this way. Make us think we know someone, then let slip a tidbit of information that drives our imaginations and forces us to want more.

Interesting characters make readers think about them after the book is closed. Do yours?


  1. Now "They'll take all those when the time comes," that's a great line. I promise not to steal it.

    1. He'll be a character in one of my novels someday. When the time is right.