If you think about it, creating characters is sort of like painting. I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve taken some lessons, and there are real similarities between the two. In both, you start with a blank canvas. You might have an idea of what you want to do, but the trick will be to get to the point where, whether with paint or with words, you end up with something recognizable, even in the abstract.
Suppose you want to paint a tree. You outline the tree with the brush, just the bare bones of it, but then you start to add layers of color and texture to make the tree look authentically, well, like a tree. For starters, you’ll probably paint the trunk, then the limbs, then the branches and finally the leaves. By then, it looks like a tree, but it might be kind of flat, which is fine if you like that type of painting, but what if you want the tree to really look like the maple that stands in your front yard? A brush stroke here, a brush stroke there, perhaps a bit of canvas showing through, and the trunk and the limbs and the branches start to really look alive, to take shape, to become the tree you view every day from your front porch.
Then it’s time to think about the leaves. This is where you get to decide the season of that tree’s life. If it’s winter, the tree, if you live in the north where I do, will be barren of leaves, but with its own stark and weathered beauty. If it’s spring, then you will need to shape the leaves and possibly add some shades of yellow or red to the tips or add white or ivory to the green to give them a fresh, young feel. Summer leaves might include some black or brown strokes mixed into the green, that rich dark color that sends the message that the days are hot and heavy and bright. If you’re painting a tree in mid-fall, you’ll think about foregoing most of the green and use lots of warm reds, deep yellows, oranges and ochre, what a lovely time in the life of that tree. In later fall the leaves turn brown, but if you look at them closely you’ll see that as with the other seasons of that tree’s life, there are many blended colors you’ll need to use to give the tree character.
Character. Now that’s an interesting word, isn’t it? According to one of my dictionaries, those three-syllables can mean many different things: the mental or moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a feature used to separate distinguishable things into categories; a graphic symbol or style of writing or printing; reputation or position; a person in a novel, play or movie. As I think about it, those definitions fit, whether you’re painting a tree on canvas or giving spirit, personality and dimension to the characters who live in your books.