Today I'm going to tell you where my characters come from.
Relax, this isn’t going to be a blog about the birds and the bees or one of “those talks” your mother had with you shortly before you hit puberty. I’m going to talk about how I create my fictional characters.
Other than “Where do you get your ideas?” (short answer: Everywhere!), the questions I’m most often asked are about my characters. Are they based on real people? (short answer: sort of) How do you name them? Do you do charts, interviews and all that other writerly stuff? I’ll answer this last question first: No, I’m afraid I’m not nearly that organized.
The truth is that for me, most of my main characters arrive in my imagination fully formed with their first, middle, and last names intact. Please don’t call the men in the white coats, but before I begin a new work in progress (WIP), I hear my characters talking inside my head. Usually, my heroes arrive first. At least this was the case for my first two published books, The Wild Sight and The Treasures of Venice. But for my current release, The Wild Irish Sea, my heroine Amber Elizabeth O’Neill and her twin brother Parker Anthony O’Neill popped into my mind first.
Ten years ago, my niece gave birth to the first set of twins in our immediate family, and the momentous event sparked my interest in twins. So it really didn’t surprise me at all when a set of twins arrived in that creative portion of my brain where my characters reside and demanded that I write about them. And while my niece’s fraternal twins were boys (and only nine) and I couldn’t very well base my fraternal twins on them, they were certainly the inspiration behind Amber and Parker.
Now, back to that place in my brain where my characters talk to me… Actually, they do more than talk. Somewhere along the line, as they are revealing their backstories and other deep dark secrets to me, I start forming an image of what they look like. Usually at this point, I go in search of photos of people who match the image inside my head. Most of the time, the photos I select are celebrities since there are far more pictures of them available. But while I may use a celebrity in a certain photo as a physical model, my characters’ personalities are definitely all their own, just like each has their own distinctive voice. For example, Hugh Jackman was the physical model for my hero of The Wild Sight, Donovan O’Shea. However, when I saw Hugh on a late night talk show, I found it very jarring that his voice didn’t sound like Donovan!
For The Wild Irish Sea, I had the easiest time finding a model for Parker. This is probably because I had such a clear image of him in the opening prologue out on the ocean in a rowboat. With Parker’s voice firmly in my ear, I went searching for a picture of a lanky, brown haired man and almost immediately found the perfect one… of Luke Wilson. Since then, Luke has been in a ton of phone commercials and it bugs me no end, because he neither looks nor sounds like Parker, who was actually inspired by my two wise-cracking brothers.
I had a much harder time finding a model for Amber, and in the meantime, my hero Kevin Hennessey showed up. Unlike my previous heroes, he was tortured and very close-mouthed about his past, but I knew exactly what he looked like. I put my search for Amber temporarily on hold and began the quest for Kevin. Finding just the right tortured but hunky guy proved a challenge, but eventually I found a picture of Christian Bale (I know, I know, he’d not Irish) that fulfilled my requirements quite nicely.
But I still had no Amber… None of the American actress I saw seemed quite right. Then I remembered seeing Gemma Arterton in Quantum of Solace. I looked up pictures of the red-headed Bond girl called Strawberry Fields and – Happy Day! – I’d found my Amber O’Neill at last! Of course Gemma is British and actually a brunette so my heroine really isn’t much like the prototype, but she’s close enough to the image of Amber in my imagination.
Well there you have it, a little insight into where my characters come from. They are sort of based on real people in that I do pick out physical models to match the images in my head. The main characters usually arrive with their names already decided, though I will admit that for some of my minor characters I do use one of those lists of baby names that you can sort by ethnicity and Irish census records broken down by county. And while I don’t do formal character charts and interviews, I know far more about each of my characters’ backgrounds, aspirations, and secrets than ever makes it onto the pages of my novels.
Do you like to know who the author pictures for a character or do you prefer to develop your own image?