The Me in My Characters

by Carolyn J. Rose

Let’s admit it. When it comes to creating characters, most of us “borrow” from real life. And often we borrow from close at hand.

We borrow from relatives, mixing Aunt Molly’s determination with Uncle Joe’s sense of humor and a young cousin’s ability to turn every recipe into a culinary disaster. And we steal from friends, putting Cynthia’s curls, Brenda’s expressive hands, and Joan’s eyes onto a character named Phyllis.

We collect attributes from co-workers: the woman who pops her gum to punctuate each sentence, the man who cracks his knuckles after every phone call, the office manager who rules like a despot, the salesman who never turns off the smarmy charm.

We pick and choose characteristics from strangers we encounter: the parents at the next table trying to find something on the menu their kids will eat, the bickering couple in line ahead of us at the grocery store, the angry man who can’t wedge his enormous carry-on case into the overhead compartment, the woman on the bus with the black eye.

We also mine deep character traits from ourselves. And why not? We’re familiar with those traits, and familiar with the benefits and consequences of having them.

I’m determined—or pigheaded as my father often said—and prone to impulse and to trying to do things myself even when I shouldn’t. When I wrote An Uncertain Refuge, I wanted to create a female protagonist who had those traits. And I did, but I gave Kate Dalton more confidence and physical presence than I have because, at the start of the book, she makes a rash decision. She jumps in to balance an unfair fight—a big man intent on killing a small woman. I wanted it to seem plausible that she could win that fight and possible that she also had a chance in the conflict at the end of the sequel, Sea of Regret.

When it came to No Substitute for Murder, a comic cozy, I wanted a woman who loved dogs, tended to be sarcastic, wasn’t all that physical, was a shade uncoordinated, and who might need to be rescued. Fortunately I meet most of those criteria and, although I usually rescue myself, I’ve been in situations where a little help would have been . . . well, helpful.

When readers meet Barbara Reed again in No Substitute for Money, she’s embarking on a program of water aerobics and having many of the same problems I had when I started—including difficulties with muscle coordination and self-esteem issues brought on by wearing a bathing suit.

Elizabeth Roark in A Place of Forgetting is 19, the same age I was in 1966 when that story takes place. Like me, Liz grew up in a small town and longs to escape, but feels awkward and unsure, and is relatively naïve. Unlike me, she doesn’t always blurt out what she’s thinking—at least not at the beginning of the story. That was a challenge. I’d have to think, “What would I say?” And then, “What would Liz want to say but not say?”

More challenging was creating a male protagonist, Dan Stone. I wanted him to be tormented and obsessed by the death of his wife, so deep in an emotional dungeon that he wouldn’t see what was in front of him. I’d been there once or twice and knew how hard it was to break out. I knew that my job and relationships suffered because of it.

Unfortunately, I went a little overboard in Hemlock Lake and let him wallow too much. Some reviewers called Dan whiny and weak and not much of an investigator. Others said they were impatient with him. Looking back as I make notes for a third book in the series, I see their point. Dan came out of his funk and got more focused in Through a Yellow Wood; he’ll be more in charge in book three, tentatively titled The Devil’s Tombstone.

What traits have you put into your characters? Stop by and tell us and we’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of No Substitute for Money.

Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, No Substitute for Murder, and No Substitute for Money. She penned a young-adult fantasy, Drum Warrior, with her husband, Mike Nettleton.

She grew up in New York's Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers' Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

Carolyn J. Rose
Mystery Writer


pam.stanek said…
Personally, I liked the progression of change in Dan Stone. I didn't find him "whiny" in Hemlock Lake, as much as tormented. He did, after all, a lot to deal with. I liked seeing him move beyond that in in "Through...Wood," however. I'm anxious to read the third in your series.
Carolyn J. Rose said…
Don't be too anxious, Pam. I'm working on a third Substitute mystery now but I do plan to write another in the Hemlock Lake series - maybe this winter.

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