The creation of characters is one of those miracle things. That happens in a couple of different ways. The ones who are historical characters are easiest of course; people like Sam Houston, or Jack Hayes, or John O. Meusebach, all of whom make appearances in the various volumes of the Adelsverein Trilogy, and in Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart. There are biographies, and historical accounts of these characters, so it is simplicity itself for me to get an idea of what they were about, how they looked and spoke and what background they came from. This does have its distractions; I was waylaid for a whole week reading biographies and letters of Sam Houston, just to write his brief appearance in The Sowing, on the eve of the Civil War.

Then there are the ones which I made up: I start with a requirement for a character, a sort of mental casting call for a certain sort of person, usually to do something. It can be, to continue the movie imagery, anything between a starring role, down to just a short walk-on, bearing a message or providing some kind of service to the plot. I usually don’t get caught up in describing everything about them – which is a tiresome tendency I will leave to romance writers and authors who have fallen in love with their own characters. Just basic age, general coloring, tall or short; a quick sketch rather than a full-length oil painting. I also don’t bother with describing in great detail what they are wearing – that’s another waste of time. Just the basics, please: work clothes, or dirty, or ragged, or in the latest fashion, whatever is relevant. And it’s really more artistic to have other characters describe them, or mention key information in casual conversation. That way allows readers to pull up their own visualizations of the characters, which seems to work pretty well and keeps the story moving briskly along.

On certain occasions, that character has instantly popped up in my imagination, fully formed. One moment, I have only a vague sort of notion, and the next second, there they are, appearing out of nowhere, fully fleshed, named and every characteristic vivid and … well, real. Vati, the patriarch of the Steinmetz-Richter clan appeared like that: I knew instantly that he would be absentminded, clever, loving books and his family, a short little man who looked like a kobold. His family would in turn, return that affection and on occasion be exasperated by him – but he would be the glue that held his family together. Another middle-aged male character also appeared out of nowhere, Daddy Hurst – technically a slave in pre-Civil War Texas, but working as a coachman for another family.

His character emerged from the situation of slavery as practiced in Texas, where there were comparatively fewer slaves than there were in other Confederate states. Many of those so held worked for hire at various skilled trades, and also seem to have been allowed considerable latitude, especially if they were working as freight-haulers, ranch hands and skilled craftsmen. Daddy Hurst is one of them; I like to think he adds a little nuance to the ‘peculiar institution’. The only trouble with that kind of character is that if they are supposed to me a minor one – they have a way of taking over, as I am tempted to write too much about them. This was becoming a bit of a challenge with the final part of the trilogy, The Harvesting.  If I had explored all the various characters and the dramatic scenes they wanted – in fact, all but begged for – it would have easily been twice the 500 pages that it eventually turned out to be. In the name of all the trees that might have been logged to print it – I had to say No, not now. But I did take note; many of those characters, with their back-stories appeared in Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart – the Menchaca brothers, for instance, or will appear in the continuing chapter of the Becker and Vining clans, in The Quivera Trail.

Where was I? Oh, characters, the third sort, evolution of – got it. That’s the other sort of character – the ones that I have started out with a certain idea of them, winging it a bit as I sketch out a scene for a chapter. Right there, they evolve, in defiance of my proposed plans for them. In my original visualization of their characters, as the romantic couple in the first book of Adelsverein, Magda Vogel Steinmetz and Carl Becker were supposed to be one of those sparkling and amusing Beatrice and Benedict couples, striking romantic and witty sparks off each other in every encounter, like one of those 1930’s romances of equals. Didn’t work out that way – he turned out to be very reserved, and she to be almost completely humorless. Beatrice and Benedict was so not happening! Within a couple of chapters of having them ‘meet cute’ when he rescues her niece from almost drowning – I tossed that concept entirely. I did recycle it for the romantic of Peter Vining and Anna Richter. He was a Civil War veteran, an amputee and covering up his apprehensions and self-doubts with a show of desperate humor. She was the clever woman who saw though all those defenses, calmly sized him up as the man she thought she could live with and come to love – and asked him to marry her, never mind the exact particulars. It makes amusing reading, just as I had planned.

The pivotal character of Hansi Richter is the most notable of those evolving characters. He started off as a stock character, the dull and conventional brother-in-law, a sort of foil to the hero. A rejected suitor, but who had married the heroine’s sister as a sort of second-best. That was another one of those initial plans that didn’t quite turn out as originally projected. A supporting character in the first two books, in The Harvesting,  he moved front and center; had developed into a stubborn, ambitious and capable person, quite likeable in his own right – and carrying a good deal of the story forward as he becomes a cattle baron, in the years following the Civil War.

2 Comments

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    I think your right that fictional characters take more work to develop than what you term “historical characters”; but, historical characters are not always well known celebrities. When writing about ancestors of whom you know little, except for the few documents which compose a life…vital records, census records, court & land records…it can be even more difficult to depict an actual person and recreate the accounts within accurate historicity. Many times I wish I could use more liberal applications of time and space…but the truth always wins out. Perhaps once I get more acquainted with my characters they will begin taking on a life of their own…I certainly hope so! Until then, I appreciate reading post like this one! 🙂

    Hope you’ll stop by…In Black and White: Cross-Cultural Genealogy

  2. Avatar

    Hi, Debra – I actually had little more to go on from some bare facts about various real people when I did my first HF; age, general background, plain historical recorded facts. Everything is a anchor-point, from which you weave the story and create the characters.
    I did go to your website – how fascinating! I wish you the best of luck, as you work on this.Sometimes it does seem like magic…