The Problem with Characters

Kathleen Delaney, author of And Murder for Dessert and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. Her long time love of small towns sent her looking through the Carolina’s for a new place to settle, Gaffney. Limestone College, a delightful historic district, and a great library immediately drew her in. She lives in a wonderful 100 year old house, with a wrap around front porch, where she and her dog, Laney, can while away a summer afternoon, and a big office, lined with bookcases, where she can spend her days writing. And, as always, reading.

One of the most frequent questions an author is asked, next to “where do you get your ideas”, is “how do you come up with your characters?”

I have no idea. They just seem to come as the story develops. My characters are not based on real people. Oh, real people give me some ideas. How someone laughs, how they walk, a phrase someone says when upset, the way someone fidgets when sitting on a bus or how someone acts while trying to stuff a bag in the overhead bin on an airplane can all be used. How someone acts when happy or how another expresses anger, all are grist for my literary mill. However, trying to describe a real person, someone I know, as a character in a book? Can’t be done. At least, I didn’t think it could be.

I’ve been asked to try. My friends and family have suggested, hinted, even nudged. One son even went so far as to tell me the reason I haven’t made the New York Times Top Ten is because I haven’t yet named a character after him. I asked if he wanted to be the murderer or the victim. I never did get an answer.

However, something happened recently…there is always a “however”, isn’t there.

I am starting a new series. It features Mary McGill, a character out of the Ellen McKenzie real estate mystery series, a character of whom I’ve always been fond. I mentioned it while visiting a couple of my grandkids.  “Can we be in the book?” was the immediate response.

I thought about it. Children always make a story more interesting. So do dogs. I’d planned to include several dogs in the story. Children and dogs go together, so I said yes. However—that again—the children in the book would have their names, Dalia and Ronaldo, but that would be all. They would be fictional, not real, this was a story. They would have one quick appearance and then no further connection with the story. Ronaldo didn’t look convinced but nodded. Dalia smiled.

It turned out the children in the story have just as much determination as my grandkids. Somehow the story Dalia has the same infectious laugh as the real one. The made up Ronaldo has the same solemn systematic approach to life as my grandson. If that wasn’t enough, the story children refused to have walk-on roles. Flat our refused. At this point in the writing, they have integral roles in the plot and are headed toward being heroes. At least, they are if the real Dalia has any say in how this story ends.

In a previous Ellen McKenzie mystery, And Murder For Dessert, my mother suggested a way to have Aunt Mary McGill help Ellen capture the bad guy. It turned out to be not only effective but also pretty funny. That one idea was all she offered. Dalia, the real one (I’m beginning to have trouble keeping them apart) has read all of the book to date, says she loves it, and has made some suggestions on how it should end. Lots of suggestions. Pretty good suggestions. Better than what I had planned. I’m sure I would have come up with the same thing when I realized how much better…Of course I would have. Wouldn’t I?

If, in future years, you don’t see my name on the NY Times best seller list, but do see a book who’s author’s first name is Dalia, please remember this. She’s real and I taught her.