Where Do Characters Come From?

Author Mitch Silver discusses how he and other thriller masters came up with the characters who have led their greatest story ideas—and how you can create great characters too.
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By Mitch Silver

When people find out I write novels—thrillers—for a living, they often ask, “Where do you get your story ideas from?” No surprise, that’s the question a lot of writers get. The second-most-asked question is, “Where do you get your characters from?”

Hmmm, that one’s trickier. The obvious answer, even if I don’t phrase it this way, is, “From my brain, of course.” But, how did Larissa Mendelova Klimt, the heroine of The Bookworm, my newest historical thriller, get in my brain? Or Amy Greenberg, the Yale art historian who was the protagonist of my first book, In Secret Service? For that matter, how did any of the other characters—the good guys, the bad guys, the real guys (Noël Coward, Winston Churchill, Antony Blunt, JFK, Marlene Dietrich in The Bookworm; Ian Fleming and Princess Diana, among others, in Service)—lodge up there all together?

Alchemy? Don’t think so. I’m pretty sure characters come from the life you live and the people you know, the books you read, the movies you see. And the paranoia you yourself bring to the party.

David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carré, says, “My characters are drawn from bits of different people.” Sure enough, I used a girl I knew from high school (oh so long ago!) as the basis for Amy Greenberg, especially her ability to sketch and her love of all things Irish. My wife Ellen is probably the starting point for Larissa Mendelova Klimt and the way she solves problems by letting her unconscious do the work. I’m mixed in there as well, with my appetite for history and my willingness to research trivial tidbits to death.

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But none of the above accounts for the fact that I write history-based thrillers, with incidents from the past serving as deadly tripwires in the present. You’ll remember that thrillers, as opposed to mysteries, are defined as stories in which the protagonist is in personal jeopardy … life-or-death jeopardy. I’ve never been in life-or-death jeopardy, unless you count the time, after a Lovin’ Spoonful concert in New York’s Central Park, I tried to make a left across Park Avenue.

No, there has to be something more for a writer of suspense than Mom and Dad and people you’ve known. More even than all the stuff books and movies and the TV news plant in your brain. For me … it’s the nightmares I sweat through.

My nightmares are always the same, ever since I was a little kid afraid of the dark: I know something I shouldn’t know, and I’m running away from the people who want to shut me up. Permanently. None of those naked-in-public or not-having-studied-for-the-test dreams some people call nightmares. I’m talking about the thugs who are in on the secret, the plot: the bad guys with guns … in cars … or in boats...or in planes—hunting me down. Maybe I’ve seen North by Northwest too many times.

Non-fiction writers have it easy. Their characters are flesh and blood humans whose looks, speech and other characteristics can be simply jotted down on the page. But novelists have more work to do.

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I’m absolutely sure when I think of the people who’ll populate a story of mine that I transmute the real-life people I’ve known and the vivid fictional characters I’ve read or seen on the screen through the meat grinder of my terrifying dreams. So, since we’re talking about where characters come from, here are a few of my favorite books and films that have, well, plot-driven plots and characters you just can’t forget or ignore when you sit down to write.

Let’s start with by James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, which was cut in half to three days for the movie starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Ronald Malcolm, a guy who reads books for a living, goes out to get sandwiches and returns to find everyone else in the private library machine-gunned to death. He’s on the run from evil forces the rest of the way. A Mitch Silver nightmare stripped to its bare essentials.

Then there’s The Parallax View by Loren Singer, a book made into a movie starring Warren Beatty in the paranoid 70s. Same deal: Presidential aspirant is gunned down, and the photographer who got the picture has to run for his life.

Of course, Hitchcock was the real pro when it comes to ordinary people caught up in villainous plots. The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and the aforementioned North by Northwest all involve regular folks who uncover conspiracies that may cost them their lives. Certainly their sleep … and mine!

Those plot-driven plots and their evildoers constitute an acre of library shelves, going back to Graham Greene and The Ministry of Fear, made into a great noir film starring Ray Milland. For Milland’s character, an Englishman named Arthur Rowe, the trip to the charity fair in the countryside (as the blurb on Amazon puts it) “is a joyful step back into adolescence, a chance to forget the nightmare of the Blitz and the aching guilt of having mercifully murdered his sick wife. Just released from a sanitarium, he’s surviving alone, outside the war, until he happens to win a cake at the fair. From that moment on, he’s ruthlessly hunted by Nazi agents.”

I’ve read the book and seen the movie every time it comes around on TV. For the hours I’m immersed in the story, I am Arthur Rowe, and I hang on by my fingernails right to the thrilling end.

There’s at least as much good nightmare material in William Goldman’s Marathon Man. Another group of Nazis, this time leftovers from the war, are after Tom “Babe” Levy, a graduate student in (what else!) History at Columbia. They want to know what his CIA agent of a brother might have told him before he died. Dental visits will never be the same.

Now that I think about it, I probably based my suave villain in In Secret Service, a guy I named Devlin for good reason, as much on the American baddie in Marathon Man as on anyone I’ve known in real life.

Want to feed a nightmare? Ira Levin went all the way in Rosemary’s Baby, where nice, sweet Rosemary finds herself living next door to a coven of devil worshipers in the Dakota. Mayhem ensues.

Last but absolutely not least is Coma, by Robin Cook. His protagonist, Susan Wheeler, is an attractive, 23-year-old third-year medical student working as a trainee at Boston Memorial Hospital. She stumbles upon something not-quite-right in OR 8: people come in for minor surgeries and go out vegetables.

Now that I think of it, I must have modeled my Professor of Geo-History at Moscow State University, Lara the Bookworm, at least partially on smart, determined Susan Wheeler. They, too, must match their wits against the evil that men do. Without knowing who those evil men are.

So the next time someone asks me where my characters come from, I’ll answer truthfully.

“I dream them up.”

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Mitch Silver was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale (B.A. in History) and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know the law through Wednesday, but after that…”). He was an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies, living in Paris for a year with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account. A previously published novelist (In Secret Service), Mitch and his wife Ellen live in Greenwich, Connecticut and have two children: Sloane is a nurse at Wake Forest Medical Center and Perry is an actor and the drummer for Sky Pony, a band in New York. Mitch also won the American Song Festival Lyric Grand Prize for "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed." His blood type is O positive, and he always writes his biography in the third person. For more info, please go to mitchsilverauthor.com.

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