Like so many other women who started out in the work place in the early 70s, the recent death of Mary Tyler Moore really hit home to me. It was particularly personal because not only did I go out in search of my future in my Mustang, heading off to the unknown city as a single woman, but my first real job was at a TV station. I didn’t even know what an Associate News Producer was in those days. Imagine my shock when that was one of my first jobs—just like Mary.
Imagine my shock years later when I came to work in a newsroom where one of the newswriters sitting across from me was witty, opinionated and always ready with a sarcastic reply. Or seeing that the anchorman I was working with was silver haired with a booming voice. One of the newswomen also across from me was tough and determined and one of my news directors was every bit as no nonsense and gruff, just like Lou Grant.
Some of my friends still swear that they know the real Mary, Lou, Murray and Ted—that producers from MTM came into their newsroom, spent time there and walked out with a host of characters. Of course when I worked in a TV newsroom across town, people there said the same thing. But the bottom line is those producers took a look at regular people in a newsroom, expanded on them, and transformed them into TV icons by making them larger than life.
As writers, we can all do that exact thing. Look around us for those people who are possibilities for characters in our next books. Whenever I get stuck in developing a character I simply look around me. As I’ve developed as a writer I’ve found that looking at the ordinary people who surround me can give me great characters. They can be transformed from the regular people I know into someone in a book by simply bringing out their good nature or turning their small faults into something terrifying. In fact I am always threatening or promising to put family and friends into a book.
Sometimes it is easiest to look at the people around us. Is there someone with an annoying habit or a tendency to be brutally honest that you can tap into? This doesn’t mean you have to use the whole person. Looking at someone and seeing a nagging little trait can be a good basis for a beginning. I keep a list of character traits, strengths and weaknesses, habits and beliefs for all my characters. Often when I am working on developing them I find myself thinking of the people around me who have a trait that could work well in an upcoming book. I had one relative who came back into my life that I hadn’t seen since I was a child. But the adult was so much different. Immediately my writer’s mind started clicking. What if I thought I knew that person but they had some big dark secret they were hiding? What if it gets her killed? Ah, I was off and running with my book, Deadly Messages.
My mother was a great story teller but she was also one of those people who was willing to do anything for her husband and family. Her courage and determination are traits I’ve often pulled into various characters because it was so real and so honest. One of my good friends who searched for love for years and finally found it in her 40s was another person I often pulled into my characters as they searched for love later in life. She was the foundation for my character who found love later in life in my short story, “Trouble in the Rockies.”
We can find instant characters all around us. They’re in the people we work with. I had a boss who was constantly interrupting me in my work for a chat, coming in to sit in my office to tell me her latest marital problem. I’m using her in an upcoming story, as well as the boss who was constantly rolling a pencil between her hands in a nervous motion. These are small things, but they can be turned into someone in a story.
Going back to my TV newsroom days, that anchorman with the wavy hair that people swore was anchorman Ted Baxter also had a particular way of standing, sort of leaning from side to side, like Ted Baxter. That was a small trait, but the first time I saw it, I could have sworn Ted was right there over my shoulder.
So look around, those great characters are all out there, waiting for you to uncover them or discover them and put them into your stories. Traits, histories, beliefs – they can all be used to create new and fascinating characters. Coming up this month I will be teaching a class on developing characters, and I’ll have more tips on how you can come up with your own great characters. I hope you’ll join me. I love talking characters and how to make them come alive on the printed page. To me, they’re the key to any great story, just as those great characters were the keys to the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Becky will presenting Making Your Characters Real starting on February 13.
Becky Martinez is a former award winning broadcast journalist who writes romance, mystery and romantic suspense. Her latest work, “One More Romance” was published in the anthology, Sealed with Love. Her last mystery novel, Blues at 11, was published by The Wild Rose Press. She is currently writing the next entry in that mystery series featuring a crime-solving TV anchorwoman, as well as a second story set at Redfern Manor, the scene of her novella, Shadows from the Past.
She also teaches writing classes and has co-authored several books on writing with Sue Viders, Let’s Write a Story – Seven Ways to Plot, and Creating Memorable Characters. Both are currently available on Amazon.com
Creating Memorable Characters: Let’s Write a Story (Volume 2) Creating great heroes, heroines and villains doesn’t need to be a mystery if you take the time to build your characters using this step by step guide. Learn how to make your characters uniq ue individuals who are both human and heroic, or thoughtful but troubled or cunning but courageous. Find out how you can use a simple procedure to come up with a character who will keep readers turning the pages.