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The Key to Creating Great Characters

Knowing a few important details about your character can go a long way into giving him or her credibility and life.

Among the great strokes of good fortune -- and there were many junctures where I could have gone awry -- was the decision to write about, via fiction, my small marina family at Tarpon Bay, Sanibel Island, Florida, where I was a fishing guide from 1974 to 1987. This marina family embraced a wider tribe of watermen from along the Gulf Coast, fascinating characters, and also decent, caring people, who now populate my novels.

First, the protagonist: I was an experienced fishing guide, so why not a marine biologist? Also, thanks to Outside Magazine, I’d traveled countries torn by wars and revolutions, so why not a biologist who was also a clandestine operator – a “spook” with skills and knowledge far beyond my own?

I liked the potential such a character offered. Marion D. Ford struck me as a good, solid name.

This guest post is by Randy Wayne White. White's latest release is Mangrove Lightning: A Doc Ford Novel. He is the author of the Doc Ford novels and the Hannah Smith novels, and four collections of nonfiction. He lives on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he was a light-tackle fishing guide for many years, and spends much of his free time windsurfing, playing baseball, and hanging out at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille. For more information, please visit and follow the author on Facebook.

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The Key to Creating Great Characters

As my editor at Putnam’s, Neil Nyren, has said more than once, a series must be populated with characters that readers want to spend their private time with. As a likeable character, I settled on a hipster boat bum, Tomlinson. But he had to have more than stoner’s sensibilities to appeal to a tough pragmatist like Doc Ford. So, I decided these two would be, cerebrally speaking, polar opposites, and thus attracted as physics demands. Ford, purely linear, unsympathetic. Tomlinson, a purely spiritual, empathetic creature who also loved to womanize and smoke grass. I envisioned the beginning of a sort of spiritual death dance, which made sense to me, anyway, because those two cerebral qualities – the wistful, spiritual; the cold eyed pragmatist – are always at odds, battling for supremacy in my head. (Ask yourself this: in you, which of those qualities most often wins out?) Fun stuff. . . except for the numbing hard work that good writing requires.

The deep affection I feel for Doc Ford and Tomlinson has roots in family, but more so in my treasured friends. As Marion Ford has opined in more than one book: “Friendship has more to do with alchemy than chemistry. It is a bond that comes with obligations, loyalty first among them.” Another Ford quote that I embrace as a credo is: “I admire the small, brave unknown people; people who forge ahead positively, productively despite the inevitable disappointments, illnesses and occasional tragedies that befall us all. They don’t make the headlines, but they are the sinew of our social fabric.”

[The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters]

It’s true that the deep affection I feel for Hannah Smith is also rooted in family stories, and the music of Southern voices. My mother and her sisters were not only natural born rebels (and feminists), they were (and are) hilarious. If Hannah’s voice has a lyrical, authentic ring, the credit goes to the Wilson sisters of Hamlet and Rockingham, North Carolina.

Hannah is a strong, independent woman, and I have always been drawn to women who, rather than being content to serve as their husbands’ orbiting stars, strike out on their own, convention be damned, and pursue their own lives and destinies. As evidenced in my Doc Ford novels (I hope), I am also fascinated by women who aren’t physically attractive by Hollywood standards yet who are imminently attractive to me and other men by virtue of their energy, confidence and their determination to live big lives.

Before I start a book, I write lengthy bios of all main characters -- bios that include information my readers will probably never see. It’s the tip-of-the-iceberg approach. If the writer portrays the tip clearly, honestly, the mountain below is believable, even though implied. If I know my characters intimately, they come to life and remain true to themselves from page one, and even beyond where a book ends. Hannah, Nate, Hannah’s mother, Loretta, and the rest will find their own paths. It is up to me to follow them loyally.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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