Creating My Characters

A couple of days ago I published a post with some of my thoughts about a new story idea. We developed the idea into a very loose story line and created the four key characters of the story. We gave them names in order to identify with the characters easier. I’m going to use this post to develop these characters (as well as others) into living, breathing individuals.

Let’s begin with the family tree. In the case of this story, the house was built by Simon’s great-grandfather and Derek his is great-grandson. That is a six levels of the family tree that needs to be defined so that we know how we get from Simon’s great-grandfather through to Derek and the ages of everyone. Lets start with Simon’s great-grandfather who built the small house in the small community of Winchmore Hill.

Tanner Hastings - Emily (Williams) Hastings
     | (1863)       |              |
Wilma Hastings  Emma Hastings  Patrick Hastings - Linda (Smith) Hastings
                                 | (1881)
                       William Hastings - Sarah (Brandy) Hastings
                           | (1899)        |
              Simon Hastings   Patrick Hastings - Julie (Windsor) Hastings
                  (1922)           (1931)  |              |        
         Tara (Emerson) Hastings - Daniel Hastings  Darla Hastings 
            |                |         (1953)   |
    Mary Hastings    Karla Hastings    Samuel Hastings - Rhonda (London) Hastings
                                         (1972)  |          
               Cynthia (Law) Hastings - Derek Hastings
                                            (1983)

The date of birth underneath certain characters is the date of birth of the character above the date. The house has past down through the eldest males in the family. Tanner passed it to Patrick, who past it to his eldest son, William to Simon. Simon never married and never had any kids leaving the house in his own hands. So the story has Simon sending a Private Investigator to Canada to track down his brother’s family tree. His brother Patrick had two kids, Daniel and Darla. Daniel and his wife Tara had three kids, Mary, Karla and Samuel and Samuel had just one child, a son, Derek (our hero). Patrick died in 2001. Daniel died only two years ago and Samuel died of cancer when Derek was only 12 years old (in 1995).

So there is the family tree dating back to 1863. This is very important because it as the writer I need to know the details around why Derek is the eldest living male relative. Thankfully, I don’t need to know what happened to the other characters who didn’t get the house. But it would be helpful to write an essay as to why Patrick moved to Canada in 1948 when he turn 17. England had be seriously damaged after the war and finding jobs was difficult so Patrick moved to Canada to find work. He met his wife three years later 1951 and Daniel was born just two years later. It’s as easy as that.

Let’s take a look at Derek Hastings. He is the hero of our story and we need to start designing and building him. For those of you who read my Workshop post on characters (as well as a much earlier post, There’s a Flaw in my Character) know that I believe every character in your story requires a flaw. So we’ll need to come up with a flaw for each of our main and supporting characters. What would Derek’s flaw be? Greed would be good as it would be opposite the story line. Greed would naturally make him want to sell the house so it’s a great flaw for him. It will lead to a great deal of conflict. Conflict with wife Cynthia. Conflict with Simon. Conflict with his inner self. So many possibilities.

Derek has always wanted to be rich. His parents, while not poor, never had enough
money to enjoy the finer things in life. It was always a struggle to make sure 
the bills were paid. His father died of lung cancer when Derek was just 12 years
old, making things even more difficult for Derek and his mother. In the second
year of college Derek met Cynthia and the two fell in love. While Cynthia focused
on her education, Derek spent most of the time enjoying himself. The two married
a year after college using the money from his mother's death insurance payout.
Cynthia quickly found a teaching job, Derek bounced from job to job always trying
to make extra money here and there. Always looking for the next big 'get rich
quick scheme'. Derek's plots made Cynthia angry and they often argued about 
money and the lack of money.

When the story starts, Derek has found himself unemployed, loosing his warehouse
job only a few weeks earlier when the company laid off nearly 30% of there
workforce. With summer approaching, Cynthia will soon find herself unemployed as 
well for the summer (while grade school is on summer vacation) and she is worried
where the money is going to come from. Derek tells her that something will come 
up. Something always comes up.

So, what do you think? Does Derek have enough depth to make him interesting? I see Derek as a likeable used car salesman or a game show host who has been able to aways fall on his feet, regardless of how bad things get. So now we need to design his wife Cynthia. While the above describes Derek, there is some mention of Cynthia because this characters are always going to be in direct relation to each other. What one chooses will affect the other, good or bad. So what is Cynthia’s flaw? It needs to fit with her being a teacher as well as oppose her husband which will generate a great deal of conflict between the two.

Cynthia has always stood by Derek even though she rarely agrees with his antics. 
She prefers stability in her life and she works very hard to maintain a baseline.
She worries about the money and the bills in the family. She would love to see
Derek find a job that satisfies him, but she knows that nothing will ever do 
that. Her own job as a grade school teacher has been able to cover the bills.
One of the rules she has is that when the school goes on summer holidays and 
she's unemployed for three months, Derek must have a job and keep it for at 
least the summer. When he comes home at the end May with the pink slip in his
hands she freaks out and worries that they won't be able to pay their bills. 
She tells Derek that he needs to find a job soon to make sure money keeps 
coming into the house.

And that his Cynthia. Even though the two characters seem to have some problems, they love each other and support each other, which will play out in parts of the screenplay. Her central flaw is her worrying about money. While Derek is always sending the cash and jumping from one job to another, she is the one worrying about the bills. Now the summer is about to start with the two of them out of a job and it is only Cynthia who seems to be worried about it. The only thing they argue about is money. Once an a blue moon Derek’s scheme brings in a little extra cash, but it never lasts. They always end up broke again.

With money being the main problem between the two, the story will drop them into a situation where they could get more money then they ever dreamt of. Derek will initially want to sell the house and cash out, it will be Cynthia (the Friend character) who will keep him from selling the house until he learns the value of family. Why is Simon so stubborn about selling the house? This is the character that needs to be detailed.

Simon's father, William Hastings, fought in World War I and Simon fought in 
World War II as a pilot. The Hastings men have always returned home, to 
the house built in 1880 by Tanner Hastings. The house has been the only 
certainty in the family. It's always been there and to Simon it will always
be there. Over the 120 years the city has built up around the house, but 
Simon has held strong and held on to the house, refusing to sell. He wants
to pass the house down. The walls and shelves are covered with family 
photos. Old black and white photos of Simon's grandparents, Patrick and 
Julie, other family members as well as family photos of Simon's baby 
brother, Patrick (named after his grandfather the year after the 
grandfather died). Simon's flaw is his stubbornness as it relates to 
his house. The house will not die as long he lives and breathes. Simon 
and the house are completely connected. The house is a character just 
as any other. The memories that it contains could tell stories that 
would write hundreds of screenplays. Simon's memories are just as strong,
but just don't reach back as far. On his 93rd birthday, Simon opened the
door to find Ronald Wainwright. He offers Simon one million pounds for 
the house and property. Simon turns him down and closes the door. For 
the next year Ronald and Simon have met several times and Simon keeps 
turning him down. On his 94th birthday, Simon decided to find his baby 
brother's family and pass the house down to the eldest living son. 
Simon believes that this unknown Hasting boy will share in Simon's 
love of the house and will stand with Simon against Ronald.

Simon is the deepest character because his character reaches back through the years and is connected very closely to the house. His desire to hold onto the house no matter what must be believable. Everything Simon has is in that house, possessions and memories.

This is just the beginning. There is still Ronald, but I won’t detail him here. What I do next is write short stories about each character. I have the characters share stories. Maybe a scene between Cynthia and Simon or Derek and Ronald. Have the characters interact with each other to see how they act together. Maybe the short stories will bring story or scene ideas to light. Maybe a short story will lead to a dialogue scene between Cynthia and Simon where we will learn about the love Simon has for the house. Play with the characters, see what they tell you? What do learn from them? What do they tell you about themselves? Maybe Ronald admires Simon’s connection with his home and maybe Ronald actually likes Simon, but he has a job to do. Maybe it kills him to attempt to take this man’s house from him. That would a flaw, a villain who actually admires this opponent. When Derek arrives things change and Ronald doesn’t not like Derek one bit. The villain becomes the villain when the arrives.

Just write. Let your imagination wander and see where it goes. You might be surprised that it will write much of your story for you.

Talk to you again soon,
Steve

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