How Matt writes a book – Part I: The characters

Writing a book is all about creating good characters. I was never a fan of the plot-driven type of narrative, at least when I write. Not only because I think I’m better with the character-driven narrative, but also because I have more fun with it.

For every character I create – even one as small as the grumpy bookshop clerk of Amber Dee’s Missing Toe – I want to have at least one strong feeling about them. Sometimes they’re entirely based on someone I knew (there really is a bookstore clerk in my town that refused to sell me twelve Laura Childs books at once!) and sometimes they reflect something I either admire or despise in humanity.

I know that the author should be the last person to analyze their own work. But, at the same time, I want to vibrate with my characters as I write a book. I want to love and hate them, to cheer for or against them. If I can do that, it improves the chances that my reader will do the same.

Victor Frankenstein: the most succesful non-writer to ever create a human being using pieces of other people.

Blue Frog, the stoic batrachian who makes a deal with Sawara to protect his people, has all the qualities I admire in a leader. The complete opposite of this would be Lydia, Grandma Bertha’s daughter in law, who tries to handle her family with a strong hand but comes off as a bitch. In the middle, you have Pollyanna from Sherlock Holmes and the Glad Game, who I didn’t create (Eleanor H. Porter did) but had to reinvent for my narrative. They all make me feel something, be it good or bad, and that’s what makes the work come together.

The worst sin a character can commit is to be bland, to be there just to make the plot happen. That’s no fun, and it’s not good storytelling. A novel should be something that happens in a living breathing world, and every character should be the protagonist of their own story, just like in real life.

When you write a murder mystery, your suspects should never be just suspects. The story shouldn’t be like watching a game of chess, where the only characteristics of each piece are their name, shape and way they move. Creating suspects who feel like real people is crucial. I try to follow that advice as much as possible, but it’s not always easy.

In Sherlock Holmes and the Glad Game, I created a crossover between Holmes and Watson and Pollyanna, from the classic children’s stories. It was by far the hardest thing I ever had to write. Not only because I was dealing with characters created by other authors, but also because I had to combine the style of a Dr. Watson narrative with someone like Pollyanna, who lived in a completely different world.

And, of course, that’s not just for murder mysteries. When I wrote Sawara: A jaguar’s memoir, I found a strange challenge in the fact that all my talking characters were jungle animals. A lot of research went into creating their personalities, more than I ever did for any other novel. Yet, I realized that once that research was done, the characters created themselves. While all of them lived in the same place, the jungle, each species had its own rules and way of seeing that world.

I’m not a fan of creating character profiles, listing their places of birth, schools they went to, their favorite movies and colors. Some authors do that, so they can know everything about their characters and not be surprised later on in the story. If it works for you, go for it. Me, I love being surprised by people I made up in my head!

I don’t believe in the idea of knowing everything about everyone when I don’t know a lot of things about myself. That’s like playing God, and I’m not God in my story. I prefer to be an observer, spying on the lives of these characters and reporting what I see the best way I can.

Some authors fall in love with their characters and refuse to kill them. That’s another thing I never understood. If a character has to go, they have to go, for the best interest of the story. That doesn’t make them less awesome, and it doesn’t end their ark either. I wish I could elaborate on that with some examples from my books, but I don’t know how to do that without spoilers.

You may be thinking that’s a chaotic approach, and it is. But things always seem to work in the end. It’s not the same as baking a cake or fixing a car. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. All that matters is that you tell a good story. And that’s my way of doing it.

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