Monday, May 21, 2012

Creating Characters

We’re often asked how we create characters. Do they just appear or do we make them up? The answer is “YES”!

The truth is that we sometimes start with a plot, and the characters emerge from that. At other times we ‘cast’ them based on friends or celebrities. Here are a few examples:

We were attending the Maui Writers Conference when Larry got the idea of writing a mystery set at a writers’ conference. So Murder… They Wrote began as his brainchild.

The next day, we met Love Smith and talked to him about ten minutes. As we walked away, I said to Larry, ‘We have to write that guy!” Thus our protagonist Agapé Jones was born. He’s loosely based on Love. However, whenever we see him, we discover that we’re writing what he’s actually doing! So maybe we’re channeling him… And here we thought we were creating the whole story.

For my novella, “Winter’s Song” in the anthology, Seasons of Love, I decided to use our friends Amy and Dan as the inspiration. He’d been after me for years to write their story, and this was the perfect opportunity. (I used their real first names with their permission. Find out what happened after the story here: )

Of course, I fictionalized most of the story. At least I thought I did.

Amy’s mother is a member of our writing group. Several times we’d read a chapter and she’d say, “How did you know about that?” I’d answer, “I thought I’d made it up.” Then she’d proceed to tell me the real story which was eerily similar to what I’d ‘made up.’

For Murder… They Wrote, we decided to create an older lady as one of the suspects. Larry’s speech teacher in grammar school was Countess Elektra Rozanska. I said, “I’d love to use her real name!” “So would I,” he said. So we tried to locate her family without success.

We decided to use her name anyway since she was long gone and she’d have loved being a suspect! So we wrote the character based on her with a few embellishments. (Find out why she was so important to Larry here:

A couple of years after the book was published, we were contacted by her grandson. He was delighted that we had written her as a character, and he agreed that she’d have loved her role. He later contacted us to let us know that, although she’d convinced Larry that her title and exploits were all true, she had actually made up not only the name but also part of her back story! Still, we’re so happy that we could pay homage to this very special person in Larry’s life.

Another special lady in my life was Lovie Cooper. (You can see her photo and read about her on our website ( When we created Agapé, we decided he needed someone to confide in. Thus was his dead mother, Lovey created, based on our own Lovie. She’s really easy to write since I just close my eyes and imagine her talking to me.

When we first discussed our anthology, Directions of Love, I knew I wanted to take the west. I love Hawaii and wanted to set at least some of my novella there. So “Finding Love in Paradise” was begun. I also decided to take advantage of our own experiences even farther west: Japan.

In this case, Kimi grew out of the storyline. She had to be at least partially Hawaiian so she had a connection there. I’ve seen many lovely Hawaiian girls in our many trips to that special place. We also know many young Japanese women. So Kimi’s appearance was based on a composite of them. Since she was raised in the US, her personality, speech, etc. were easy to write.

Her love interest, Jason, needed to be Japanese/Hawaiian for the story to work. Again, he grew out of the story. However, one night we were watching “The Mentalist” on TV, and Detective Cho (Tim Kang) walked onscreen. “That’s Jason!” I exclaimed. From that moment on, Jason looked like the actor.

However, that wasn’t the end of the story. A couple of years later, we were visiting Oahu and decided to spend a day at Queen Emma’s Summer Palace. We were assigned a docent, and when she appeared I gasped. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But you look exactly like a character I created for a book.” I went on to describe “Finding Love in Paradise” to her. It turned out that this young lady shared many characteristics with Kimi. Both were Irish/Hawaiian. Both studied anthropology at UH. Kimi was a docent at the Bishop Museum, and this one was at the Summer Palace.

And once again I wondered just how much I’d made up.

The character of Nan Burton in my new novel Ghost Writer is loosely based on the young ladies I worked with at my last job. I tried to capture their speech patterns and language since they were close to her age.

Max Murdoch, the ghost, was really based on some of the characters portrayed by Clifton Webb in his old movies, particularly Three Coins in the Fountain ( He is an old curmudgeon, egotistic, and insensitive. He’s also a bit arrogant and British like the character Jonathan Harris Played in the TV Show Lost in Space (

Even though I think I made them up, I have a sneaky suspicion that, given my record to date, I may actually meet people like them someday.

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