Thursday, November 3, 2011

3 Secrets -- The Alchemy of Inventing Realistic Characters by Guest Blogger A.B. Bourne

Let me introduce you to today’s guest blogger, A.B. Bourne. Just published in September, her first novel, THE FIRST SECRET OF EDWIN HOFF, is a thriller about an elite commando living the unexpectedly public life of a billionaire tech entrepreneur. Like me, Annie has a high tech background and, like me, she is represented by the HSG Agency. She worked at Akamai Technologies on strategic deals with IBM and Oracle, and managed Akamai's initial public offering. She now lives in Massachusetts where she is hard at work on THE SECOND SECRET OF EDWIN HOFF.


Often - maybe always - real people and real events inspire fiction writers. An author must disguise these sources, and convert their energy into made up characters and scenes that feel authentic. How?

I used several techniques to write my new thriller, THE FIRST SECRET OF EDWIN HOFF, a Batman-meets-Bourne thriller about an elite commando, living the unexpectedly public life of a tech billionaire, until called upon to stop a bio-threat set to release with a 9/11 plane. Edwin saves the world from terror, turning the folks he meets into heroes. Edwin is pure fiction, but believe it or not, he’s inspired by a real man. Danny Lewin started Akamai Technologies, had a unique background, and a profound impact on most people he encountered, including me. Until that terrible Tuesday.

The book is all fiction, but working with Danny was powerful, as was the peak and trough of the era. Some of the lessons and essences of that time have migrated to this novel - but nowhere obvious. Here’s how I made sure of that:

1) Use “Slivers” from Real Life.

In college, I had the rare opportunity to attend a small seminar led by Toni Morrison, the Nobel and Pulitzer winning author. “How do you start a book?” someone asked. Ms. Morrison said she began with small “slivers” -- a glance exchanged on a pillow, she offered – and then she would layer the rest of the character and plot over that sliver until she had a book. I figure a Nobel/Pulitzer prize winner must know what she’s talking about so I’ve tried to build the psychology of my characters on a memorable blush or hesitation, a prideful boast, or surge of adrenalin. Usually, a single character will end up with attributes from several different real people, and then a few more that just start to make sense as she or he takes shape.

2) Mix it up! Human character strengths and failings do not discriminate.

Surprisingly, a single human attribute fits as easily on a character that is old or young, male or female, of any ethnicity or nationality. If the fierce focus of a young man moves you, see what an old woman would do with that skill. If you sense weakness in a successful middle aged man, make a younger woman wrestle with it. I nearly always change age and gender when working with character traits inspired by real people. No one feels exposed and the demographic changes create space for new plot, dialogue and character development for my truly fictional, but resonant, characters.

It works. Nine months before we published THE FIRST SECRET OF EDWIN HOFF, I gave manuscripts to the top people at Akamai to be sure that truth was not stranger than fiction; offering to change anything that inadvertently had struck too close to home.

“It’s fiction,” one shrugged. “I can’t figure out who any one is.” Later another reader, also a former co-worker, sent me an email: “I’ve spent the first 50 pages projecting our old friends on every new character but I’m over that now.”

3) Work with your character’s psychology, not their CV.

Before beginning a book, some suggest building an elaborate profile for each character – decide where your character was born, where he went to school, his favorite colors, etc.

I don’t do this. First I focus on my character’s fundamental strength; then on his weakness, or his profound yearning; then what caused each. The positive and negative forces of these attributes spin the character’s development like a top - which then turns the plot believably. This storm helps me pull in character history that supports the character’s fundamental dilemma. When an author stays true to the character’s real strengths and forces her to transcend her limitations – or fail because of them -- readers keep turning your pages.

The other night, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock kept me up until 2:31 a.m. The girl who falls for the killer is train-wreck compelling. We know only that her father lives in a dingy flat, bargains weakly, then sells her to a threatening stranger for 150 quid. We watch her squint to see her new husband. All she sees in a drawer full of switchblades and a stashed can of cash is a husband’s savings, something that should buy his wife a pretty pink dress. This compulsive delusion, and where it leads her, makes us fear for her, blame her, want to protect her and – keep watching her.

Good luck!

Note: You can read more about Annie and her book at


Beth Groundwater said...

Hi A. B.,
Thanks for guesting! With respect to character profiles, I find that they're helpful early in the process of defining a character, to get to know them much like getting to know a person in real-life. Often through that process, I uncover underlying strengths, motivations, yearnings--and history.

For instance, I had a male character who was very protective of his female lover, but I didn't figure out WHY until I filled in his character profile. I discovered he had a divorced sister whose ex beat her & my male character and his brother had to go teach the slimeball a lesson.

Robin Allen said...

Thanks for sharing these great techniques for writing a story. My second book started with the "sliver" idea of a restaurant with an unusual theme.

I let my characters develop as I write the story, which means I often have to re-do previous scenes. I could probably save a lot of time if I did character profiles, but those just don't work for me.

Shannon said...

Thanks for the great suggestions. It's always interesting to see how each writer builds characters and story and how individual and messy it can be sometimes.

Darrell James said...

Welcome to Inkspot, A.B. Thanks for the insights, and best wishes on the success of "First Secret".

Kathleen Ernst said...

Welcome to Inkspot! I enjoyed your post. I love the "sliver" image. Thanks for sharing.

Sebastian Stuart said...

Excellent post -- those character building techniques are spot-on! thanks.

Alan Orloff said...

Thanks for guest blogging! I love hearing how other writers progress through the creative process (yes, I take notes--always looking for better ways to do things). Best of luck with THE FIRST SECRET OF EDWIN HOFF!

A.B. Bourne said...

Thank you all for your insightful and generous comments! And many thanks to Keith Raffel and the Inkspot community for inviting me to blog and chat with you in this space today.

I'm new at this: so new that 1)Keith kindly nudged me to respond and 2) Blogger ate my first comment as I tried to sign up earlier this evening!

Writing is more art than science to me but I enjoy analyzing the process; what works and what misses; and coming up with rules/nuggets that work - at least for the moment, at least for now. It is chaos, controlled. And messy. Really messy. I'm delighted to share what I've learned and - even more - gather what you have.

To that end, what do all of you hold close as your most effective marketing techniques? How do you expand the circle from family and friends and their friends, to a broader group? In technology, we call this "crossing the chasm" thanks to the pen of Geoffrey Moore. How does this work in thriller/crime novel marketing? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I look forward to hearing from you.
- A.B.

Deborah Sharp said...

Hi, there .... thanks for guesting here with us, Annie.
I enjoyed your take on building plot and character, especially the part about mixing up character traits: switching a young person's quirks to an older person for example. I wish you the best of luck with the marketing aspect that comes next, which is the part that really seems like ''chaos, controlled'' to me!

Keith Raffel said...

Annie, Thanks for the visit!

A.B. Bourne said...

Thanks Keith! I've enjoyed it!