Tuesday, July 19, 2011

WILL THE REAL (UNREAL) CHARACTER PLEASE STAND UP

Darrell James

One of the greatest joys of being a writer is to see a character you’ve created jump off the page and come to life. It’s something you can’t always plan, can rarely predict, and sometimes can’t explain even after it happens. It’s simply characters taking on a life of their own, turning in an award wining performance. And it often comes as a complete surprise to the author.

What a great feeling to have been the one to breathe life into them.

For a character appearing for the first time, then, the story becomes something of an audition. A screen test. A pilot episode that can either leave the character in relative obscurity or propel them into a very real life that will see them recur time and time again. Though not every character wins the Oscar, if an author is lucky, a handful of characters go on to story stardom.


To date, I’ve written and had published close to thirty short stories, my first novel in the Del Shannon series, Nazareth Child, is forthcoming in September, book two in the series is completed and has been turned in to the publisher, and my latest short story has been chosen for inclusion in the Lee Child anthology, Vengeance, slated for publication in April-May next year. All told, I estimate that I have created more than 150 primary and secondary characters (maybe another 100 walk-ons). Several of whom have become so real to me that I have taken them on more than one story journey.

They are all part of the fictional world that I inhabit as an author. And what great fun it is to see one of them continue down the path of life. Even more so, to see one stumble onto the landscape of another character’s story. It’s like running into an old friend at the bank (although, in this case, the old friend is probably there to rob it.)

Elmore Leonard does this superbly. I came to know Raylan Givens from the Leonard novels "Pronto" and "Riding The Rap". Later, I thrilled again to the character in the short story, "Fire In The Hole," appearing in the Leonard collection "When The Ladies Come Out To Dance." I’m now a devout follower of Raylan in the FX television original series, Justified, based on the character. I feel as if I have known Raylan (and, in some respects, Elmore) personally, for a very long time.

What about you? As an author, have you created characters that have demanded their own life and space in your fictional world? As readers, how does it feel to recognize a character from the past? What’s one of your most befriended recurring characters?

6 comments:

G.M. Malliet said...

That is huge news you kind of slipped in there, about the Lee Child anthology. Congratulations!!!

As to recurring characters, Adam Dagliesh is one favorite.

Beth Groundwater said...

Congratulations on being in the Lee Child anthology!

As for demanding characters, the one that keeps demanding to be put in books--and then demands to take over every scene he's in, is my supporting character Leon in my Claire Hanover gift basket designer series. Readers now expect a "Leon treat" in every book and look forward to his appearances. :)

Darrell James said...

Thanks Gin and Beth! Some of the others included in the anthology: Lee Child, Alafair Burke, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane... It sure can't hurt being in that kind of company.

Shannon said...

One of my favorite reoccurring characters (unfortunately not my own creation)is Skink in the Carl Haissan books. And yes, Darrell, good company, indeed!

Robin Allen said...

Interesting post, Darrell. Sometimes characters become so much a part of life that I don't look at them in terms of favorites.

I like Leonard's Raylan Givens, Ray Nicolette, and Karen Sisco. My very favorite, though, is Donald E. Westlake's John Dortmunder, the most depressed, luckiest thief in NYC.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Huge congrats on the anthology! And on all the other short stories--they are so difficult to write.

As a writer, it is fun to see a character come to life. In my current WIP, a character I hadn't even conceptualized when I began writing is coming to take a primary role. Who knew? I'm enjoying him.