When you hear the name Sherlock Holmes, what are some of the things you imagine? The distinctive deerstalker hat? The curved pipe, maybe a magnifying glass? It’s a classic image, somewhat created by those who portrayed Holmes on stage. Maybe some remember Holmes playing the violin during periods when a case particularly perplexed him. Or maybe his storing his tobacco in a stocking. Possibly the true fans will remember his use of cocaine.


Nero Wolfe brings to mind a large man with an aversion to women’s tears, his collection of beer bottle caps, enjoyment of fine food, a slight tilting of his head in acknowledgment or emphasis, often saying “Pfui!” when refuting some absurd point, his fondness for yellow pajamas, and of course, orchids.


An affinity for tweed, knitting, and gardening–besides solving crimes–are aspects associated with Jane Marple.


Above is just a sampling of memorable characters. They’re remembered throughout the years because each has one or a series of aspects that distinguish him/her, their own personal ‘quirks.’


In some ways, the creation of characters is easy. You have a private detective who solves crimes. This person has brown hair and brown eyes, and usually wears jeans and a T-shirt. See? Easy. However, this person is pretty bland and not at all memorable. It’s up to the author to add ‘spice’ and ‘life’ to the character. For instance, the detective stands only four feet tall, drives a motor scooter, owns a St. Bernard, likes Chopin, and has an addiction to Snickers. Or maybe the woman has only one hand, is constantly haunted by nightmares of an abusive mother, owns a crossbow, and paints her apartment green.


As long as the author is able to bring the character to life and stay ‘true’ to his/her creation, then maybe people would be interested in reading about this character. It’s up to the author to give a character something to make him/her different from everybody else.


Think about the character envisioned by Andy Breckman and David Hoberman and given life by Tony Shaloub. They created a detective with over-the-top obsessive disorders. Adrian Monk feared milk, wind, sausages, tossed salads, and went so far as to dispose of a single tissue by sealing it in a plastic baggie, then sealing that baggie in another baggie. Somehow, the idiosyncrasies worked and the television character became one of the most loved.


Sometimes, characters are defined by other characters. This is especially true with Stephanie Plum. Yes, she has some quirky aspects to her, but a lot of the humor and ‘character’ comes from Lulu, Maretti, Grandma Mazur, and Ranger.


Authors need to dig deep to find the unique pieces and parts for a characters, whether they want the person to be funny or strictly serious. When writing a story, the characters will often times ‘speak’ and let the author know how to form their personality. Other authors may want to do an intense character outline to define a particular figure in the story. There are many books about developing character, and some may find them useful. What each author must remember, though, is not to be bound and limited by those books. Each must find his or her own path and find whatever works for developing characters.


Who knows, maybe today somebody is creating another memorable character to stand beside Sam Spade, Elvis Cole, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, and Pronzini’s ‘no name’ detective.

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Comment by Stephen Brayton on January 29, 2012 at 6:05am

True, I was thinking about one of my character's actions to certain things. Something as minor as turning up her nose at coffee or rolling her eyes at another oddball walking through the door or how she reacts during the gunfight at the end.

Comment by Charles Kelly on January 29, 2012 at 5:54am

Though "action" is sometimes interpreted as dramatic action, slam-bang stuff, much of the action in our lives is subtle.  Little actions exhibit character, too, sometimes moreso than more striking actions.

Comment by Stephen Brayton on January 29, 2012 at 5:48am

I wondering if I do a little bit of both with my characters. I put them in situations and see how they react. However, there are certain traits I want to bring out that may have nothing to do with action oriented situations, or maybe only minimally.

Comment by Charles Kelly on January 29, 2012 at 5:37am

Of course, who you are and what you do play into each other.  That's why exploring character in creating fictional people is so much fun.

Comment by Stephen Brayton on January 29, 2012 at 5:32am

I can agree with that. How a person acts or reacts in certain situations shows character traits. However, you do see certain traits repeated for many characters in a series. For example, Wolfe's yellow pajamas isn't so much an action, it's just who he is. The way he orders beer and argues with his chef over food preparation are actions that show character. This is an issue worth exploring more in depth. Thanks for the comment. I'll think on that and maybe do a follow up in the future.

Comment by Charles Kelly on January 29, 2012 at 5:15am

Interesting issue.  A guy named Jack Woodford wrote a cult classic on writing fiction years ago, and he said that specifically trying to create characters wasn't a good idea.  Woodford said that "action is character," so just write what a person does and that will reveal the character.  If a person sees a dime on the street and picks it up, he's one type of character.  If he passes it up, he's another type of character.

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