Donna is the author of the Novice mystery series about a retired cop and social worker whose travels leads them to solving crimes. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.
When I wrote my first novel, Novice Mystery – Ireland, few people knew I was endeavoring to be published. I spent a great deal of time researching names that were appropriate given the character’s age, country of origin, and how the first and last names sounded together.
Unfortunately, I used a family member’s married name for one of the villains. The family member called and pointed this out to me. Although an innocent mistake, I have made note of being more careful in future writings.
Now, having two books published, a third in editing, and a fourth being written: some family members, friends and even co-workers have asked to be a character in one of my books. I thought this was cool. I must have made it as an author. Funny, I shared this with my writer’s critique group, and it brought a swift response from someone who writes family memoir. She replied, “No one wants to be in my writing.” I realized this can be a delicate line to walk, even after discussing it with the person.
One day a co-workers was being sassy to me. I quipped, “Careful or I’ll put in one of my books and make you a not nice character.” She replied, “Can it be my mom?” That stopped me in my tracks. I was skeptical that her mom would want that, or my co-worker would be disinherited and said so. She assured my there was nothing to inherit, and her mom would love it because at 87 years old, mom doesn’t get out much.
Pensively, I said I would consider it and asked her mom’s name. It’s a cool name, Marcyellene (pronounced phonetically as Mar sa lean). I used the name, formed the character, making her younger and of questionable morals, who has outlived two rich husband’s untimely accidental deaths. I ran this information past my co-worker, who assured me it would be positively received. When the novel was published she bought her mom a copy for Christmas and I held my breath. I learned that Marcyellene read the book, noted when her character appeared, and she loves the character’s naughtiness.
However, it’s not always that smooth. A co-worker asked to be in my second novel, Novice Mystery – Mexico. I told him I’d put him in the book, but he would be a victim. He agreed. When the book was published he informed me he wouldn’t buy a book because, “I had killed him”. Another friend was sad that I didn’t kill him. I felt bad. Had I not fully explained how their character would function in the story line? Had they said more, and I wasn’t listening when they asked to be in the book?
What I’ve learned is to be very clear when someone asks to be a character, or I think that they would make a good one and ask them. It can be done with forethought, clear character development, and a vision of the trajectory or arch of the character’s actions and/or motives in the book.
It helps to truly know the person however I also ask questions. A lot of questions. Such as:
- What type of character do you see yourself as? Suspect, murderer, willing to be a victim, or criminal type other than the murderer that will be used as misdirection?
- Are you comfortable with being described as you are including, height, weight, hair, and eye color?
- If not portrayed as you are, then what? Taller, thinner, more hair, or other features. One of my co-workers is willing to be described as she is but wants her character to have a tan Pug dog.
Areas I focus on are the five senses:
Visual: Age, height, weight, hair and eye color, or any distinctive features, such scars, a pock marked face.
Auditory: The sound of their voice such as an accent, nasally, high pitched, etc.
Physical Stature: Are they muscular, flabby, or anorexic.
Olfaction: Is there an aroma of cologne, soap, tobacco, garlic, or other food scents.
Tast: If kissed, what does it taste like? Mouthwash, tobacco, or food.
It allows me to fully develop a character. More importantly it allows the person portrayed a chance to see various facets of what the outcome will be.
What I’ve learned is to be very clear with anyone who asks to be a character or if I believe they would be an interesting one. It can be done with forethought, clear character development, and a visions of the trajectory or arch of the character’s actions/motives in the book. I also hold my breath when the book is published. I want people to have fun with their character. I would never want anyone to feel I’m making fun of them.