Meet Sally O’Brian – The Joy of Creating a Character

               One of the fun things writers get to do is creating characters. While we have to accept the people around us in the real world, in our fictional worlds, we can create any character we want. We can make them as good as we want, or as evil as we can imagine. In most cases, the kind of characters and how they are drawn depends on the type of fiction you are writing.

               In my fiction, a form of cozy mysteries, my characters need to be believable and realistic. I don’t make them as realistic as they might be in a hard-boiled mystery. For example, while my characters often use foul language, I try to tone it down as much as I can. But my cozy mysteries aren’t about a bunch of old ladies wondering who stole the pea green Worsted Weight yarn from their knitting club; they’re stories about people who kill each other. My first series focused on an ex-detective who continued to solve crimes. My second series focuses on a retired school teacher who interacts with her dead husband to solve the unexplained deaths of people who return as ghosts.

               When it came time to start my second series, I had to figure out exactly who Sally O’Brian was. I had some basic parameters. She was going to be a Gen-X retired school teacher, married to a successful investment broker. Unfortunately, she and her husband are involved in a tragic accident on the Pacific Coast Highway, and both Sally and her husband Matthew are killed in the car crash. Sally discovers that she didn’t actually die in the accident, while her husband did. But now he has come back as a ghost. Sally learns that she has a new mission in life. She must help lost souls find out what happened to them…and ultimately, she needs to find out who killed her husband and tried to kill her.

               I had the core of my character, but I needed more to bring her to life. To do that, I adopt a rather structured approach to defining my characters. First, I find a picture of my character on the internet. Many times, the pictures I find are those of famous people. Sometimes, they are just people who are in the news. But the picture reminds me of what the character looks like in my mind.

               Then I try to build the background history of the character. To do this, I use what I call a Character Card (Figure 1). This card has the name of the character, a series of numbers from 0 to 60. These represent the ages of the character, so if a character is born in 1980, that year is placed at 0. The reason for this is that all of us progress through our lives in just about the same way. We’re babies, then toddlers, then grade-schoolers, then high-schoolers. Some of us go to college, some get jobs, some get married, some join the military. And while every life is unique, most people’s lives follow similar patterns.

               Other information on the card are the four lines in the upper right hand side of the card: Parents, Siblings, Spouse, and Children. These individual often provide boundaries around the character. Each of us is often the product of our parents, influenced by our brothers and sisters, defined by our spouse(s), and redeemed by our children. The lines under these four entries are for key facts about the character.

Figure 1 – Character Background Card

               The Character Card allows me to keep track of every character in my story. But the card also helps me build the back story for the character. For example, Sally is the oldest of four children born to George and Elizabeth Pierce. Her siblings are Ronald, Lucy, and youngest brother Tony. Since I know the years that these siblings were born, I have a lot of information about how Sally grew up, what her relationships with her family were like, and even more importantly, what her relationship with her siblings is when my story takes place.

               Here’s an example. When Sally was eleven years old, her youngest brother Tony was born. Sally took great pride in helping her mother care for the baby. This value stayed with Sally, so that when she had to go to work when her daughter was five years old, she had no problems expecting an eleven year old to be capable of looking after her daughter. She would later learn that wasn’t the wisest of decisions, but her history helped structure the character I drew in my story.

               An astute observer should already realize that creating character cards can lead to the creation of many, many characters. In one of my stories, I had two main characters involved in the murder. Yet I had more than thirty character cards created for their families and relatives, all part of the background story for the two characters. While few of those characters ever appeared in the story, they were essential to understanding the characters who did appear.

               As I write the story, the character’s personality continues to develop, often organically on its own. For example, I know that Sally became a teacher when her daughter was five years old. Sally kept teaching third and fourth grade for the next twenty years, when she “retired.” (There is some question about exactly what caused her to give up teaching, but that will be explained in the Ghost in the Garden.) However, Sally’s philosophy of teaching emerges when she is trying to deal with a disappointing turn of events in the Ghost in the Vineyard: “Sally had been a teacher. She had learned never to accept what people called reality when it came to making an impact on a child’s life. She had learned never to give up. ‘I have to accept what actually is, Matt, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep doing everything I can to change things.’”

               This sums up Sally’s philosophy in life. It’s a philosophy that inspires me, and it comes from a character that I thought I created, but who came alive on her own.

               And that’s the magic of writing.

               If you want to follow the adventures of Sally O’Brian, check out the Crystal Cove Cozy Ghost Mystery series.


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