You Are What You Were When
By Kathy Clark
Great characters…that’s what several of our REALITY ROMANCE Blogs have been about. What makes characters memorable and what makes people love or hate them? They have to be real. They have to be people you want to know or who are similar to people you already know. Nothing kills a book faster than a character you don’t care about. Love them or hate them, they have to make an impact.
The lead characters of most romance novels are in their early twenties to late thirties range. But the supporting characters can be all ages, shapes, colors, and personalities. If there wasn’t a variety, the story would be pretty one-dimensional. You’ll see authors add babies, teenagers, parents, grand-parents, and even animals. They all make interesting additions as long as you, the writer, makes sure that they’re consistent, real, and important to the plot.
When we were creating our Austin Heroes series, we knew the three books were to each feature one of the Archer brothers. How do you balance a cocky DEA agent, a golden-boy Texas Ranger, and a prodigal son Homeland Security officer? One of our favorite TV shows is Blue Bloods that each week ends with a big family dinner. Well, we decided to adapt that meal idea to a family of alpha men who are supposed to leave their guns at the door, but almost never stop talking shop. Who could be strong enough to counteract these powerful personalities?
Their feisty grandmother, of course. Grammy grew up in the Sixties as a young musician turned hippie, immersed in the culture of Haight Asbury. She still enjoys smoking pot on the porch and living on the edge of society. What better conflict for three grandsons who have sworn to uphold the law? One even has a drug dog who definitely has a conflict of interest every time they come for dinner at Grammy’s.
The fun part about writing Grammy was that we could make her bigger than life. The challenging part was that we had to keep her in character and have her appropriately represent her generation. There are plenty of Baby Boomers out there who would spot anything disingenuous or incorrect.
Equally important was when we were writing Another Chance, the third book in the series. The premise is that Luke (the Homeland Security officer) returns home to Austin on an assignment and bumps into his high school sweetheart, Bella. So, while not actually having two sets of characters, we had to deal with Luke and Bella as emotional teenagers and as cynical adults. That involved going back to the Eighties and staying true to that era, as well. Do you remember that there were no cell phones, DVDs, CDs, or internet back then?
Working with all those characters at various stages of their lives was a lot of fun. Their lives, loves, emotions, heartbreaks, and ambitions were all woven into the plot, making a complex, but realistic view of a family.
My husband heard a wonderful speech by a man named Morris Massey, a marketing professor and sociologist. His decades-long work is focused on values, generations, and what he calls Significant Emotional Events, or SEE’s. Some of his most noteworthy, useful and entertaining topics include:
- The Original Massey Tapes – 1: What You Are Is Where You Were When
- The Original Massey Tapes – 3: What You Are Is
- The Original Massey Tapes – 4: What You Are Is Where You See
- What You Are Is What You Choose…So Don’t Screw It Up
- Dancing With The Bogeyman
They tell how to make characters that are true to their backgrounds and beliefs.
Authors tell you character background by several means:
- What their pop culture is about [music, words, films, books, art etc.]
- Reference points [age of family members, what grade they are in school, if they are on social security or in the military are the obvious examples]
- And the obvious clue, the author just tells you
Dr. Massey’s findings will help you create wonderful characters that are consistent with their age and upbringing. When a senior citizen acts like a teenager or a college student dresses like a grade school kid, the reader is thrown out of the book. These incongruities, unless there are “payoffs” later in the book, just show you didn’t do your homework and you didn’t really know your own characters.
Following are some quotes from Another Chance that illustrate our point.
“Grammy took us everywhere in that bus. When the engine burned up for the third time just two years ago, she had it towed back to this field, then held a wake for it. Hundreds of people came out. It was the event of the year.” Nick shook his head and smiled as the memory of that crazy party flashed through his mind.
“She has lots of friends?”
“Everyone from the 60s who was involved in music…that is, anyone still alive…showed up. It was…colorful.” Nick glanced over at Jamie. “I have to warn you…Grammy is not a typical grandmother.”
“And this must be Harley.” She looked down at the dog that was sitting at attention next to her, his gaze focused on her with burning intensity. She wore a long prairie skirt and tie-dyed T-shirt with her curly steel-gray hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“Grammy, you’re killing me,” Nick said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’ve got a joint in your pocket, don’t you?” Nick asked.
“I might,” she admitted with an unapologetic grin.
“I’m a DEA agent, and Harley’s a drug dog. What are we supposed to do with you?”
“Arrest me,” Grammy challenged nonchalantly. She leaned over and petted Harley whose concentration didn’t waiver.
“I should. Maybe a night in jail would be good for you,” Nick retorted.
“Ha! Like I haven’t been to jail before.” She chuckled. “The first time was back in ’67…or was it ’68? Anyway, me and a bunch of other women burned our bras in the street outside The Playboy Club in San Francisco. I haven’t worn a bra since.”
So what does the teaching of an expert in this field, Dr. Morris Massey, tell us? Dr. Massey’s credentials are on line. In his book What Works At Work (Lakewood Publications, 1988) he was cited as one of the most influential workplace experts of the time. And to fully understand why people believe what they do and have the values they do, you have to understand where they’ve come from.
Morris Massey has described three major periods during which our values are developed.
The Imprint Period
Up to the age of seven, we are like sponges, absorbing everything around us and accepting much of it as true, especially when it comes from our parents. The confusion and blind belief of this period can also lead to the early formation of trauma and other deep problems. The critical thing here is to learn a sense of right and wrong, good and bad. This is a human construction which we nevertheless often assume would exist even if we were not here (which is an indication of how deeply imprinted it has become). If parents are poor their kids often will value wealth. If they’re jobs are a t risk and they’re unemployed the kids will value job security and when they’re older days off without pay is a significant.
The Modeling Period
Between the ages of eight and thirteen, we copy people, often our parents, but also other people. Rather than blind acceptance, we are trying on things like suit of clothes, to see how they feel. We may be much impressed with religion or our teachers. You may remember being particularly influenced by junior school teachers who seemed so knowledgeable—maybe even more so than your parents.
The Socialization Period
Between 13 and 21, we are very largely influenced by our peers. As we develop as individuals and look for ways to get away from the earlier programming, we naturally turn to people who seem more like us. Other influences at these ages include the media, especially those parts which seem to resonate with the values of our peer groups.
So your kids or even you at about age seven, between eight and thirteen or between thirteen and twenty one, are primary time periods that mold us. Is it any wonder therefore that kids growing up in the fifties explained a lot about the existence of the hippies of the sixties and seventies and the push back the baby boomer generation always seemed to be doing in the sixties through to today.
Kind of makes you wonder what imprints kids in the early twenty-first century will value as adults. The point of this blog? Be sure your characters are consistent with their age and era. Of course, not everything you know about your characters will come out on the page. But it impacts who they are and how they will react to whatever conflicts you’re going to throw in their path.
Our series novels are in three different age ranges for example:
- The young adult series, TIME SHIFTERS, is about four sixteen year olds.
- The new adult series, SCANDALS, is about five adults age eighteen to twenty five
- Romantic Suspense, both the Denver Heroes and Austin Heroes series, is about characters in their mid to late twenties.