By Donnell Ann Bell
One of the hardest things for me to do as a writer is to create characters. Some authors have told me, “Oh, my character came to me fully formed.” Others say, “Oh, I do character interviews to find out what makes him/her/them tick.”
Me? I ask my characters, “Who are you?” and most rudely shout back, “You’re the author, you figure it out.”
Not helpful. Makes me want to stuff them in a drawer until they can play nice.
Still, I can have an amazing plot, but if the characters don’t come alive, then my book is nothing more than words strewn on a page. No matter what genre you read, books are all about emotion, and characters bring emotion to life.
What’s more, without strong, relatable characters, readers might give a book a try, but they will just as quickly put the book down.
So, because I need characters in a book, and because my characters are stubborn and won’t talk to me, I cheat.
Yes, you heard it here first.
If my protagonist is in law enforcement, I interview members of law enforcement. If my protagonist is an FBI agent, I interview FBI agents. If my killer is an insane whack job…I interview mental health professionals and read books. (I fully admit I don’t interview whack jobs). By using these techniques, I find my muse comes to life and the characters cooperate.
In Black Pearl, my November 2019 release, I came across a new problem. I wrote my first female police officer. One would think, oh, that’s easy, you’re a woman. Au contraire, this character really dug in her heels. She had the nerve to call me, her creator, a fraud.
What did I do about it? I went to some fellow authors who in their past careers were law enforcement: Kathy Bennett, Phyllis Middleton, and Robin Burcell. I interviewed them and asked them about their experiences. These women were beyond helpful.
I took those results to my female police officer character. But instead of saying, “Great job,” she said, “You’re getting warmer. You need to know more. You need to get inside my head.”
Because she’s not real and I couldn’t shoot her, I did a lot of groaning and pacing. Then another idea came to me. I’m a graduate of citizens academies for my local police and sheriff’s office, so I marched into the Gold Camp Police Station one morning and asked the woman behind the glass partition if I could do a ride-along.
“Of course,” she replied and pulled out her clipboard. “Fill this out.”
I hesitated. “Thank you. I will. However, is there any chance I could do a ride-along with a female police officer? And is there any chance she could be a field training officer?”
The woman blinked. “Will there be anything else?”
I thought about it. “No that about covers it.”
As events turned out, there was a female field training officer in the Gold Camp Police Station at that very moment. The receptionist paged her; she came out to the front desk, introduced herself, said she was too busy to accommodate me just then, but two weeks later we did a ride-along on a twelve-hour shift.
She was amazing. Professional, smart, everything that Kathy, Phyllis and Robin exuded in spades. I saw how she conducted herself with the public and listened to her comments in private. Further, she helped me brainstorm my character, and one remark she made hit me with such force, I took her at her word. “Please don’t make her a slut. We don’t get where we are by not being professional and smart.”
I went home after that shift and did my character outline and that’s when my character told me her name. “My name is Allison Shannon,” she said. “I come with plenty of baggage, but I’ve risen above it.”
I’ll close by saying, I’m intensely proud of Allison and she’s one of the best characters I’ve ever created. But as you can see, I didn’t create her alone. She’s a mix of some very remarkable women I admire. She’s working in a man’s world. She’s tough, she’s formidable, but vulnerable at the same time, and she’s waiting to tell you her story.
I’d love to have a drawing for readers who comment today. I’ll give away two copies of Black Pearl, and I’ll ask Writerspace administrators to draw names.
Thank you for being with me today.