Picking Favorites by Mary Burton

“So which of your characters is your favorite?”

The question came from a writer friend of mine the other day while we were having coffee.

“Favorite?  How can I have a favorite character?  They’re kind of like children.  And mothers don’t pick favorites.”

My friend leaned forward, eyes narrowing a fraction.  “Oh come one, you have a favorite.  You know you do.  Confess.”

I hemmed and hawed for a few moments and then finally blurted out something I hadn’t shared before.  “Kendall.”

“Kendall?  Kendall Shaw,” she said.  “But she’s such a witch!”

“That’s because you’ve only read, I’M WATCHING YOU.  Read DEAD RINGER and DYING SCREAM (out 11/09).  You’ll learn to appreciate her.”

My friend shook her head.  “I don’t know.  She’s the original Mean Girl.  I don’t see how you could redeem Kendall Shaw.”

Honestly, I’d been a little worried about saving Kendall when my editor suggested that the ambitious reporter could the heroine in my next novel.  Sure Kendall was smart, athletic and beautiful, but she was also willing to take major short cuts to get a story and she would gladly steamroll over anyone who got in her way.  There was a lot not to like about Kendall. 

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed.  I was anxious to get to know the edgier Kendall.

As a secondary character in I’M WATCHING YOU, Kendall and I had become friendly acquaintances.  And though I could tell you a little bit about what was driving her, I didn’t know her darkest secrets.

So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

Just to get my brain flowing, I pulled out my Archetype cards and studied the personality types’ weaknesses and strengths.  Kendall is the Queen and like all the other Queen archetypes, she radiates femininity but can be arrogant and controlling.  I took the Myers-Briggs test on Kendall’s behalf.  She’s an EITJ; meaning she has an Extraverted, Intuitive, Thinking and Judging personality.  EITJ’s are not only driven, but are career minded and despise mistakes.  And I poured through magazines looking for the right images that would capture her.  She’s very Angelina Jolie. 

But the more I looked at my notes the more I realized something was missing. All the information I had for Kendall was good characterization but I still didn’t understand what made Kendall Kendall.  I then I realized I needed her emotional hook. 

Her what?  I call it the emotional hook; others call it the character’s wound.  Others call it a trauma.   Basically, it is the event (or events) that happens in the back-story.  It’s the something that changes the course of a character’s life, defines their strengths and weaknesses and makes them who they are today.

The best way for me to understand all this was to study books and movies and try to find the characters’ emotional hooks.  Remember the movie BACKDRAFT?  Great move for not only pyrotechnics but for character study as well.  The main characters are the McCaffrey brothers.  The brothers loose their firefighter father in a blaze when they are just boys.  The father’s death creates a terrible wound in each boy and changes the course of their lives in very different ways.  In GOOD WILL HUNTING, Will Hunting is repeatedly beaten by his father and told he is no good.  As a result, he’s unable to tap into his math genius.  In the television show THE MENTALIST, the lead character Patrick Jane’s wife and child are murdered by a serial killer that Jane himself had challenged.  Jane gives up his con artist ways to fight crime.  And in the case of DEAD RINGER’S Kendall…. well, I won’t tell you what changed her because it might spoil I’M WATCHING YOU, DEAD RINGER and DYING SCREAM.  Suffice to say Kendall has her share of issues.

Once I understood Kendall, I had my foundation in place and I could build the book’s plot.  I could come up with the right twists and turns aimed at digging into Kendall’s weak spots and testing her as a person.   Kendall and the plot became inseparable—two sides of the same coin.

Character and plot answers seem so obvious when I’m holding the finished book in my hand.  But in all honesty, getting to know my characters is never an easy process.  For some writers, it involves lots of pacing, a few sleepless nights and a good bit of worrying.  When I’m chewing over a character, I head to the kitchen and pull out the pots and pans and start baking.  Countless hours are spent mixing, icing and just thinking.  And I can tell you while I was trying to figure out Kendall I baked a legion of cupcakes, cakes and pies. 

All that baking now seems kind of ironic because the highly disciplined Kendall never would have allowed herself such high calorie treats. 

Whereas, Mary Burton, who swears chocolate feeds creativity, never met a cookie she didn’t like.

2 Responses to Picking Favorites by Mary Burton

  1. Billie Jo

    LOL Mary

    Great post. I am a fan of finding redeeming qualitites in a less than redeeming character.

    It gives people hope that maybe, just maybe they can turn their lives around.

    Billie Jo

  2. Natalie Acres

    I have a few characters to redeem and a few more to understand. This is such a great blog topic. It’s good to find you today.

    Have a terrific Tuesday,

    Natalie Acres

Back to Top