Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Town Made the Characters

The Town Made the Characters
By Kay Springsteen

When I began Lifeline Echoes, I decided on the premise of the story first – a trapped individual and someone who had been his voice lifeline, keeping him hanging on. I knew the story would begin in one location and end in a completely different place. Once I settled on Los Angeles as the starting point, I went in search of the opposite end of the spectrum, Small Town, Anywhere, U.S.A. I could have chosen the Midwest, since I grew up in Michigan, but something screamed Cowboy to me, so I invented a small town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. That’s how Orson’s Folly was born. But a small town needs people or it’s just a ghost town.

The stories that take place in Orson’s Folly (so far, Lifeline Echoes and Elusive Echoes), take the whole town to tell. While the primary focus in both stories is on the hero and heroine, like most people, they aren’t living in a bubble. They have interactions and these interactions push the story along. Main characters need to be made real. You may start with an idea, cut it into a paper doll, dress it, add layers until you have a plastic cutout, and then finally add the polish that makes the character alive. But it’s not enough to make real-life main characters. You have to make your secondary characters just as alive and just as believable—just as loveable and just as unlikeable.

So, I populated Orson’s Folly with some typical small town folks. But just putting these folks in place was the same thing as putting cardboard cutouts in Yankee Stadium instead of hiring extras for a baseball movie. They’re present but they do little to move the story along. Add a few “real” people into that crowd of cardboard and a soundtrack of stadium noise, and you get some motion in the stands to disguise the cutouts. Add a section of people seen in close-up talking, eating hotdogs, cheering when the hero hits a home run, and interacting with the hero in the form of perhaps getting an autograph, and you have a realistic backdrop to a scene that advances the story.

When Ryan returned to Orson’s Folly after being gone for over a decade and a half, the sheriff told him half the people thought he’d leave again and 49% were afraid he wouldn’t—and the sheriff was the 1% who would wait and see what happened. Bingo. My town’s residents now had relationships to my hero. Some liked him, some didn’t. Some figured he’d bail again, some hoped he would. From then on, every interaction shown between Ryan and the town “extras,” showed which side the extra was on, and gave an idea of Ryan’s place in the town. He may have returned, but he’d have to earn his standing again.

The key to building the layers of all the characters is to consider their relationships to one another. Parent/child, romantic interest, siblings, best friends before or now, competing athletes, casual acquaintances, former lovers, aggressor/victim, rivals, boss/employee, customer/clerk, caregiver/care receiver, law enforcement/criminal – these just to name the tip of the iceberg. Once I decided on the specific scenes my story was going to show, I populated the scenes with characters. For instance, when my heroine stopped for gas, I built layers on the cardboard cutouts of gas station attendant and other customers and had my heroine run into two gossiping townsfolk who stopped talking when she rounded a corner to find them there, giving the heroine a sort of edgy feeling and the knowledge that something was going on but it wasn’t for her ears., emphasizing that she was still an outsider in the town.

In Elusive Echoes, many of the same characters from the first story returned, and some got ramped up roles. The trick in this case was to build on any characterization already laid out in such a way that it didn’t contradict what had already been developed. There is a bit of leeway with secondary characters because they don’t have as many layers added into them as the well-fleshed out primary characters.

In Orson’s Folly, however, I have managed to build a system of several tiers of characters: the main characters, the supporting cast, and townspeople who are shown in various levels of interaction throughout both stories. The primary characters (Ryan and Sandy in Lifeline Echoes, and Sean and Mel in Elusive Echoes) are the main secondary characters in each other’s novels. All of these characters had to stay true to form while at the same time taking a backseat when not in their own story. But the secondary character of Justin McGee (Ryan and Sean’s father) is more like a secondary and a half character – not quite primary but definitely above secondary. Thus, it was a bit easier to keep him in his place as the glue of the McGee family through both stories. His relationship with his sons as well as with people in the town never changed.

The key to holding the characterizations true was to examine their relationships to each other and use these relationships as a sort of keystone. Ryan was the big brother who left and returned years later as the Prodigal Son. Sean was the kid who’d been left behind, who had moved into taking on the responsibility for running the ranch when their father had to step back some. He had a hard tome relinquishing the role of responsibility when his brother returned, and they were still doing a push-pull a year and a half later when the story became Sean’s to tell.

But I think sibling or parent/child relationships are fairly easy as long as you know the family history. How can other secondary relationships be utilized to move a story? The power of a decades’ old grudge can create hatred that festers and malevolence can grow to such a degree that family feuds are born. Or take the triangle. These are often seen in romance, but what if the writer takes a triangle and twists it so that it’s not a romantic triangle but a triangle between the love of the heroine’s life and someone to whom she gave life? Different kinds of love but equal in intensity – and then she must choose between the two.

In order to add the final layer to a character, the one that makes the character stand up and say “notice me, I’m real,” the writer must take into account the character’s relationships with others. Thus, the town of Orson’s Folly, or rather relationships with its inhabitants, is what put the polish on the characters that started out as cardboard cutout ideas.

To find out more about twisted triangles of love . . . I invite you to pick up a copy of Elusive Echoes


  1. Wow. This is one of the best posts on character layering I've ever had the pleasure of reading. You just sold your book, m'lady! There's a copy of LIFELINE ECHOES waiting for me on my Kindle right now. (I stopped typing mid-message to go buy it, LOL). And your new cover is GORGEOUS!

  2. oooooo, good post, Kay. You make a great point of how we really are a product of our surroundings and those who know us best!