Chief Inspector Preston (a major character in Broom 3, to be released in early 2009) has a degree in criminology from Leeds City College. But that fact is never mentioned in the book. So how do I know it?
The way I know it is that I write out a complete bio for each of my major characters. In fact, I do the bios before I finalize the plot! Why?
To me a novel is a story about people and how they change under stressful circumstances. I have a vague plot line in mind. I make a list of characters that might figure in the story and give them each a biography. Where they grew up. How old they are. Where they went to school. What their favorite color is. All that sort of thing. As I do this, these characters become real to me.
The point of all this is that I throw these characters into my plot outline to see how they behave. Each character is different, and each must behave differently in the book. How will I know how to make them behave if I don’t already know them exceedingly well? The answer, of course, is that I can’t unless I’ve studied each one and tried to crawl inside his or her head.
Reggie Baker, a major character in Broom 3 (although dead), went to school at Eton and Cambridge. He retired as a history professor at one of the colleges at Oxford.
Again, none of this is mentioned. But it does give me a feeling that he was quite intellectual. As I wrote the book, I changed his background to Sandhurst, service in India and Singapore, all as an MD. Why? Because as I got to know him and his family, that seemed to fit better. It gives me a little twist on the plot–his wife dies of breast cancer that he himself didn’t catch in time, and he blames himself for this (and so do others). But I couldn’t have done that had I not thought about him before.
In a future post I’ll talk about how a character’s reaction to circumstances can cause change (and sometimes even growth).