As I start developing a story, I begin with the main character, a supporting lead, and a villain. After that, I populate the story with more characters based on the needs of the primary ones and the storyline.
The characters need to be likable and relatable. No one will believe a character who is flawless, who never, ever screws up, and who always responds to others with humility and kindness—and frankly, I find perfect characters annoying. Each character must have motivations to drive their actions, as well as likes and dislikes and unique ways of approaching a problem.
Each character becomes a living individual who resides in my head during the development of their story. They hold conversations with each other and with me, enact scenes, distract me from daily activities and from interactions I am having with others, and occasionally cause me to tune out what’s going on around me completely. Usually, I can mask that this is occurring; other times, I’m not so lucky and have to admit with some embarrassment that my mind has wandered, while mentally telling my characters to shut up. They seldom listen. They drag me to Caledon at all hours of the day and night and hold me hostage there. However, Caledon is one of my favorite places, so I don’t mind. I am guilty of talking to myself, though I try not to do it in public; I even hold conversations with myself, though if you were to get the opportunity to listen in, you would hear that two or more characters are interacting. Those conversations often make their way onto the computer and into the books. The more thought and internal chatter I engage in as I’m writing, the stronger the story turns out.
Most of my major characters in the Dragon’s Fire Series (with the notable exceptions of Kate and Mya) are introverts, and therefore very much like me. Up until this series, I never felt comfortable making my main character an introvert; perhaps they are a sign that I am finally content with who I am!
Myrhiadh is my favorite character; in almost 40 years of writing stories, I have never created a character I like better than her. Her name means “multi-faceted, having many aspects,” and I enjoyed working through her conflicts as we explored the concept of war together. She played a role in an external war, but at the same time, fought an internal battle with her past, her beliefs, and her inner voices. Myrhiadh haunted me from the moment I conceived her, and she still lives in my head. Even though her story is told and out for the world to read, she’s the one who lingers with me, and she will show up again in future books.
During the plotting stage, I often make up a cast list of the characters I know I will need, including their names, physical appearance, personality quirks, and role within the story. Other characters pop up as I need them, sometimes not until the second, third, or fourth draft. I had written seventeen chapters of The Rose of Caledon before I gave Kate a brother. Once I realized that she needed him, I went back and inserted James where necessary, because he couldn’t just show up without warning in chapter seventeen. A similar situation occurred with The Brigand’s Promise: the first draft of the book was completed a year before I added the character of Brendan—which made a fairly significant plot change in the story! These late-comers get stuck on like band-aids at first; a very noticeable insertion where they were not originally intended to belong. But through the editing process: writing, polishing, rewriting, and polishing again, they graft into the story and by the time the book reaches your hands, they look as though they’ve been there from the beginning.
Myrhiadh’s family is a major driving force for her actions throughout War, and she needed relatives for whom the reader would believe that she felt a tremendous sense of love and responsibility. The closeness and camaraderie between Myrhiadh and her mother and sister had to be evidenced entirely within the first chapter and a half but carry through the rest of the book—no easy feat. Myrhiadh’s mother had no visual impairment until a few days before the book went to press. I added that detail last minute when it occurred to me that some readers might view her as lazy since she was pushing her daughter to get a job to provide for the family instead of doing so herself. While in my view she was busy working at home—housework was extremely time-consuming back then—readers might not be so forgiving, and I needed them to like Molly. So her visual challenge was born, and her dependence upon Myrhiadh increased exponentially as a result, which in turn strengthened Myrhiadh’s need and desire to protect and care for her. A win-win situation for me and the plot!
The Brigand’s Promise presented a unique character challenge. I needed to tell this story from the villain’s point of view. When the villain becomes the main character, he/she has to be likable. How do you make villains likable and still maintain their place as the bad guys? Well, for starters, they have to have a problem and a goal, just like any other Main Character. They have to have some good points. They cannot be altogether repugnant. The reader must understand their motivation for doing what they do and care about them in spite of them—so their wickedness must have limits. Brigand presents a conflict of interest for the reader. We want the good guys to win, but at the same time, we don’t want to see the villains end up on the gallows or worse.
Sometimes I’ll change a character’s name after I create them. Usually, this happens to only minor characters, but Gwyneth from Brigand was originally Aria, a name I decided was too similar to Ava, and might be confusing for some readers. She is the most major character who’s ever had a name change, and I did it about a year after I had written the book. It took a while to get used to the change, and I referred to her in speech interchangeably as Gwyneth and Aria for several weeks, even though the edit in the manuscript was completed in seconds, and Aria was gone. King Rian was at first King Peter. Brendan was written in as Brian and changed when that name wasn’t working for me; partly because every time I typed it, I accidentally typed “Brain.”
One question readers frequently ask is whether or not I model my characters after real-life people. The answer to that is yes and no. If I notice an interesting quirk or behavioral pattern in someone I know, yes, that trait can be transferred to a character. If I see a quality that I particularly admire in someone else, that quality may mirror in a character. And yes, it’s true that if you tick a writer off, you may become a character who gets killed off in some way in a book, under a different name, of course—generally, the angrier you have made the writer, the nastier the circumstances of your death will be. Am I guilty of this? Yes, definitely. Is every character I kill secretly someone who has annoyed me? No.
My heroes take many of their character traits from my real-life husband, who happens to be an awesome guy. My personality is interwoven through almost every heroine to some extent, although the character I most identify with is Myrhiadh, and after her would be Teifi, who you haven’t met yet, but you will! (Her story is coming in Book Six.)
I do make an effort, however, to make sure that no character will be so like someone I know in both appearance and personality that the parallels are unmistakable. No character is 100% modeled after anyone I know. Nor am I going to admit who inspired any characters or who I killed off, so please ask something else!
Another question I was asked recently was, “There’s so much time between the stories! How do you detach from your characters and move on to the next book?” Short answer: I don’t. Every last one of them is still very much alive in my head, and some of them will appear in future books as the series progresses. (After Book Five I’m going back in time because there are still so many untold stories!)
Who is your favorite character so far from the Dragon’s Fire Series? Please share: I would love to hear your thoughts!