Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Brand of Toothpaste Did Sherlock Prefer?

by Tracy Kiely

Years ago, I took a writing class called “Creating Memorable Characters.” I was just starting my first mystery, and I was worried that some of my characters were somewhat one-dimensional.  At the first class, the teacher handed out a thick packet of questions that we were to complete for each of our characters. This exercise, he promised, would enable us to create real, believable characters. I remember holing the packet as if I’d been handed the Holy Grail of Successful Writing. Here, I thought, was the key I needed to write the book that would land me on the coveted spot on Oprah’s couch.
Then I got home and started to read through the questions. They ranged from what brand of toothpaste did the character use to what was their favorite subject in high school. All in all there were over fifty questions for each character.  I began copying the questions out and creating a kind of excel spreadsheet of answers for each of my book's ten characters. I created separate folders for each of them and clipped pictures from magazines of people who resembled my characters. Months slipped by, and I realized I hadn’t written a damn thing and also had no space left on my desk. I decided then that I just needed to start writing and stop preparing.
Don’t get me wrong – a good character does have a background and details and a life. They can’t just be a prop that delivers your lines. But I think you can exhaust both time and yourself on background detail that no one will ever know. Once you have a general idea of your character, you can start writing him or her. If they are real to you, then most likely they will be real to your readers. As you write, little things will come to you. They might chew gum when they are nervous or pick their nails. They may get headaches before storms or have an irrational fear of ferrets (sorry, those things freak me out). For me, I can always find a million reasons to procrastinate on the actual writing (or just about any task, really. Don’t even ask about my Christmas card progress).  Spending months deciding what brand of toothpaste my heroine prefers is just another reason for me to procrastinate.
Once I finish the first draft, I’ve spent enough time with my characters to go back and add any details that might have revealed themselves to me along the way - their likes, dislikes, political leanings, etc... For me, it’s easier to add to what is already written than to add to what is still in my head.
But, for the record, my protagonist Elizabeth Parker, prefers Crest.

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