The Writing Life

…a literary journey

Building your Cast of Characters


For me, creating characters is one of the most enjoyable things about writing. I’ve used different methods at times, but today am going to share how I developed the characters for Oldsters.

Because this story deals with characters who are older, getting the physicality of them right was important to me, so I had to go outside my usual routine of just imagining them into being. My first step was just to Google people of the specific age/sex/features. For example, “80-year-old women” or “man with fedora hat”.

After looking at numerous photos, these five became my inspiration for Eddie, Ray, Nick, Lila and Bette – the amazing group of Oldsters!

Characters for Oldsters

The gang from Oldsters

Now more than one of these folks of course is recognizable as a famous actor…which you may think could be problematic, but it really wasn’t an issue. Whether the photo is of an actor in character for a role, or just a candid shot of them in their true self, what attracted me to the photos in questions were bits and pieces of what I saw. So let’s delve in a bit to illustrate.

Eddie: Here I was looking for a distinguished and attractive older man who looked like he could have been a reporter and writing professor. What cinched this photo for me was that along with having the physicalities I wanted, there’s something in his eyes that tells me something is going on beneath the surface. It’s not a photo of someone whose sailing through life – there’s some angst there (although it could be him just squinting into the sun – as a writer, I take it for what I want it to be!). He is my protagonist, and most of the story is told through Eddie’s POV. Eddie was recently widowed and spends his days at Avalon trying to finish a book he started when his wife was still alive. For reasons to be revealed, Eddie has decided to step up and help get Ray out of Avalon, and to New Mexico to mend things with his grandson Penn.

*Much of the writing advice out there tells us that a key point of plot is to make sure your protagonist undergoes a change. As I’ve written before, it’s important to pick and choose the writing “rules” you decide to follow for yourself, and this particular rule is one that I’ve definitely modified in writing Oldsters. Eddie has an issue to deal with, that is certain. But does he change? I’m not sure. I think it’s important for the characters to have a realization – now if that realization causes them to truly change – well just as in life, sometimes people change and sometimes they don’t. So yes, Eddie will have a full realization, but we’ll have to see if that changes his nature and the rest of his life.

Ray: Ray is the oldest of the group, a proper English gentleman who came from one sort of life and chose another one entirely. We learn early on that Ray is living in the later stages of a disease and is desperate to make things right with his grandson. This picture portrayed the kind man I believe Ray is; and someone who smiles in the face of adversity. He’s not perfect, and he’s learned that. The photo reads to me as someone who forgives others because he understands that everyone makes mistakes.

Nick: Okay, Nick is not Harrison Ford lol! Well yes, that is a picture of Harrison Ford, but he is in character for one of his recent roles, but man – it is Nick to me! Nick is the youngest of our group, and perhaps the one with the most to gain. Originally from a small horse town in Florida, Nick found love and success on a grand scale living a horse ranching life he never had thought possible for a boy from the sticks. But life does step in sometimes, and the fall from ranch manager to small-time bookie takes its toll. This photo was perfect – it showed the Nick how he was before we meet him in Oldsters, but after his personal downfall. I see on his face the look of urgent need – a desperate feeling to get something right.

Bette: I knew I found my Bette when I saw this picture! She looks frail and unassuming, but her eyes told me that wasn’t the case. Bette is in a way the heart of all the characters as well the catalyst for several events, and this woman looked smart and capable enough to me to play this part. She may look like a bird, but underneath it all, I saw a fierceness that I wanted for the character.

Lila: We meet Lila on page one as she is moving in to Avalon. She is the newcomer, but she is actually the one who presents the group with the opportunity they need for their journey. Again, here we have a famous actress as inspiration, but in this case, it was truly her physical features that fit my need. Lila is a woman who has come to Avalon begrudgingly at the request of her children. She is an artist, and is in no way ready to sit back and wait for life to be over. She is from a past of jazz-filled clubs and beatnik artistry. It was really her facial features – her periwinkle eyes and that necklace she wore around her neck that got me. Her jewelry in the photo above may be diamonds, but it was easy enough to turn them into simple sterling silver and turquoise – to represent the free spirit Lila is in the book.

*When I started the book, I had Lila as a co-protagonist. It took months for me to realize that may be difficult to pull off. And as I went along, all five characters could have easily been the main character…they each are key and have their own stories to tell. In the end, I chose Eddie – but not in the standard way of attributing more story time to him or even placing more importance on him…really just for structure purposes. There is really not one character’s story who is more important than the others – but for POV purposes, it was simpler to use one character as someone we’re used to hearing the story from and then feed in the other characters and their stories around that.

So this was my way of developing my main characters. I did the same thing with secondary and minor characters, as well as locations. It really helps me to have a visual to work with.

What I love best about these characters is their complexity, and the surprising twists that come out of writing with a group of older characters.

Next up: Locations. How I researched and found the main locations in the book

7 comments on “Building your Cast of Characters

  1. Pingback: Handling Multiple Story Arcs | The Writing Life

  2. crimsonterra
    June 29, 2014

    Oh wow !! I’ve been stuck in a writer’s block for awhile so decided to start from the top and this really helped me get back into the swing of character development. Thank you so much 🙂

    • iamvickiroberts
      June 29, 2014

      You’re very welcome, and I’m glad you found it helpful! Creating your characters can be a really fun part of the writing process…if we take time to bring them to life, they will help us tell their stories. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
      Vicki

  3. Tristan
    April 15, 2014

    I’m a huge fan of Joss Whedon. Something he said once was that he has repeatedly attempted to make his shows focus on a single heroic character, only to find that time and again, he keeps ending up with ensembles. Having the single protagonist may be his intent, but there’s no getting around the fact that his ensembles work, and exceedingly well!

    Comparing that to shows that start out trying to be ensembles (Lost/Heroes, et al), you see a HUGE difference in the feel. Those cast ensembles are disorienting because the reader (or viewer, rather) doesn’t have a character in which they can anchor their emotional investment, so they wind up making no emotional investment whatsoever.

    So, if I had to guess, Whedon’s ensembles probably work so well precisely because he keeps trying to create that single protagonist that can carry the story. He fails at that, but in the trying he winds up consistently creating protagonists that can carry an ensemble cast, and it’s th0se remarkable ensemble casts of his that carry his shows so well.

    P.S. I don’t think Joss Whedon is trying one thing and failing at it like he says. I think he knows EXACTLY what he’s doing and just being modest.

    • iamvickiroberts
      April 16, 2014

      Interesting points Tristan…I was a huge fan of Lost and while I cared about many of the characters, I was most tied to Kate – so in that situation I guess I created my own protagonist. But on the other hand, Lost was more plot driven (whether it worked or not) than character driven, and when that is the case, I think an ensemble works better.

  4. iwishidknown
    April 15, 2014

    Hi – sorry, I wasn’t sure where else to comment. But – I’ve nominated you for the Liebster Award: http://iwishidknown.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/paying-it-forward-a-blogging-award/. Not spam, I promise. Though spammers could say that as well, I guess. Cheers!

    • iamvickiroberts
      April 15, 2014

      Coolest thing ever…thank you! Great concept and I’m glad to participate, thanks again!

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