Ask a writer if their characters are real, and they will probably say, “Define real.” Characters are real in every sense, except being flesh-and-blood. They become a writer’s constant companion even when the writer isn’t hunched over a computer screen tapping furiously away. See that faraway look in a writer’s eye when you’re talking to them? They’re probably thinking about these characters and what they’ll put them through next.
So how do these characters walk into a writer’s life and become as immediate as flesh-and-blood friends? Are they constructed through a writing exercise or is there an organic method to creating multi-dimensional characters?
Every writer has a different approach. Some must name their character first and only then will the character take shape. That never really worked for me. There were several times when I had to change a character’s name mid-stream and it didn’t change their nature in my head. Other writers need to interview their characters to come up with their likes, dislikes, and favourite foods. I’m an avid Scrivener user, but the character templates, while good, usually lie fallow.
Music is my gateway to uncovering the depths of my main characters as it unlocks my imagination. Daydreaming about these characters while listening to music helps me to connect to them off the page and write them better on the page. I actually feel stymied until I find a collection of songs to create a soundtrack.
Iain, the hero of Severed Knot, always likes to buck the trends. He was Iain before he was a Johnstone. Remember what I just said about re-naming characters? Iain showed up in the very first Traitor’s Knot draft when the story was little more than an elaborate outline. At the time, he was a Highlander (so much for character templates, once again), then in subsequent drafts, he became the canny, confrontational border Scot he is today.
Through Iain, I discovered just how absolutely fascinating Scottish history is. I enjoyed it so much that when I sent James Hart of Traitor’s Knot into Scotland with Iain as a guide, they nearly derailed the entire story, leading me down several beguiling rabbit warrens. I found myself so far off the main story road that my critique group had to rein me back in, asking, “Where are you going with this?” After a stern lecture to both those characters (with lots of shuffling of feet and sheepish looks cast between them), we got right back to the story. Sadly, that meant that there were many Iain scenes that had to be shipped off to the Land of Lost Scenes, ironically not unlike his fate in Severed Knot (being shipped off to places he’d rather avoid). There, he’s managed to do it to me again—made me digress. How does he do that?
Where were we? Ah, yes, Severed Knot and main characters.
When it came time to start the second novel, I had the luxury of having a familiar character. But a side character is not a main character. There are many facets even the author doesn’t know about a minor character. Think about the difference between a friend and an acquaintance. So how did Iain Johnstone transition to hero?
The music of Dougie MacLean really spoke to me where Iain was concerned. Dougie MacLean’s lyrics often express a longing and a deep love of Scotland. These melodic compositions connected me to the heart of Iain and helped me find out what made him angry, what made him melancholy and what he truly needed.
My heroine, Mairead O’Coneill, was entirely spun out of music. She walked on a stage in my mind with her violin while I was listening to local musicians play at a spring festival. I pictured Iain there too, listening to her play as an unassuming woman transformed into someone special through her music. Those two were well ahead of me, and not having a notebook with me that day, I had to scramble to get the ideas down in my phone.
I still needed a soundtrack. Loreena McKennitt, though perfectly sublime for Traitor’s Knot, wasn’t connecting with Mairead for some reason. It wasn’t until I discovered the music of Irish singer Cara Dillon that everything started fitting in place for Mairead.
I’ve grown to love Cara Dillon’s music and even have turned others on to her. One in particular, friend and historical fiction author Annie Whitehead has since become a fan, and she even got the opportunity to hear Cara Dillon in concert. Knowing how much of an influence her music was on my story, Annie very thoughtfully let Cara Dillon know during the break and secured an autograph for me. This has a very special place on my bookcase. Thank you again, Annie!
That key scene, with Mairead stepping out on a make-shift stage to play her violin came alive under a Cara Dillon song, The Tern and the Swallow. The haunting quality of the melody and the melancholy of the lyrics made me think of the longing for home. I played that song over and over again and could visualize every note. That scene is still one of my favourites. If you would like to read it, here’s an excerpt.
To hear the music that inspired me, here is a YouTube video of Cara Dillon performing The Tern and the Swallow. No matter how many times I hear it, the song has the power to emotionally move me. Enjoy!
For any writers out there, how do you create your characters? Drop me a line to let me know.