The Writer’s Toolbox: Character Development

Do you need to name a hero or heroine? Plan your heroine’s pregnancy? Determine the color of a child’s eyes? I do, too! Let’s go misuse the interwebs, shall we?


Name characters with writing tool Behind the Name from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

I suppose most people use naming sites to name their real children, not their imaginary ones. But we authors name more people than Octomom on a fertile day, so we need a site for power users. At Behind the Name, you can search names by letter, gender, derivation, usage, history, meaning, keyword, length, syllables, sound, and more. Its historical popularity tables include all of the Social Security administration’s data for American names. And, if you find something you like in Spanish usage, for example, it will give you every possible related name in other cultures. It even has a family tree for names. Moreover, you can ask it to randomly generate a name according to your criteria. The “submitted name” feature even allows you to browse the latest monikers that are not “official” in any country’s lexicon, keeping you ahead of the trends. There is a surname section, too! It is a very powerful tool, and I have used it in my Sugar Sun series from the very beginning. (I also browse names in cemeteries, which I cannot recommend highly enough, especially for historical fiction. You can bring those names back and read about them on this site.)


Random number derivation for character details in writing from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

Okay, now you’re confused. What do random numbers have to do with fiction writing? Well, if you are a little obsessive about your characters, then…everything! I determine birthdays, anniversaries, number of children a couple has, how much a bribe costs, and more through the use of truly random numbers. Need to flip a coin, but don’t have any change on you? Random.org will do that for you, too. It will also pick your lottery numbers, practice your jazz scales with you, and randomly generate short prose. These last few features I cannot guarantee.


Calendar feature for character development for fiction writers from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

And, speaking of calendars, timeanddate.com is very powerful. You can quickly search the calendar of any year in any country. Wait, Jen, isn’t the calendar the same in all countries? No, there are many alternative calendars—Chinese, Islamic, Hebrew, Mayan, and others—all of which are on this site. But, more importantly, even though most countries have adopted the Gregorian calendar for civil use, not every country has the same weekend or holidays. This site has them all.

How about moon phases? If you write a night scene, don’t you want to know how much light there was outside? The site also has a sunrise, sunset, eclipse, and seasons calendar. (If you need tides, I like Tides4Fishing, which has historical data back a few years.)

I also frequently use the date duration calculator to figure out exactly how old my character is on a particular day. This is helpful when writing a series that spans several years. It will also tell you what years have the same calendar as the historical year you might be using. You can find out, for example, that 1815 (if writing Regency) or 1905 (my Edwardian series) both share the same calendar as 2017. This means that more limited internet calendar tools—like those below—can now be used with success. Just use the modern year that has the same calendar as the year you really want.


Menstrual period tracker good for character development in fiction writing from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

“Whoa, Jen! That’s an overshare! We don’t need to know about your menses.” No, I don’t use this myself. I mean, I could, but I’m not that organized about my own life. But I will find out every detail about my heroine’s ovulation, cramps, and menstruation. This kind of woman-centric focus is why I dig romance. In fairness, contemporary romance may gloss over periods of “indisposition” or “women’s troubles” because we have tampons and ibuprofen, thank the heavens. But in historical romance, I want to know when my characters are going to be inconvenienced—even if nothing is mentioned in the book. (Yes, I’m a little obsessive.) Now, thanks to Tampax’s Period Tracker, I know all: PMS time, heaviest flow, post-period, and peak ovulation. For people who don’t exist. I’m so messed up.


Pregnancy conception and baby calendars to use for character development for fiction writers from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

My characters screw like bunnies (ahem, romance!), and since they live in a Catholic country in the Edwardian period, conventional contraception is hard to find. So my ladies do get preggers. And since I, the author, have no children, what do I know about pregnancy? Very little. So I have Baby Center. Their due date, conception, and week-by-week pregnancy calendars are very helpful. You can also chart your heroine’s cycle with them, but it is a little more detailed than the Tampax site, and there is discussion of mucus, so enter at your own risk.


Determine color of eyes for character development for writers tool box from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

The Tech Museum of Innovation and the Stanford School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics did not create this eye color site for authors, but it is a brilliant tool for us. It is a part of a larger online exhibit on genetics. The scientists behind the site would tell you that their model is oversimplified, but since I have not had to take a real science class since high school, I think it’s perfect. But they also walk you through adding a little complexity to the model with these instructions.

You can either examine your results through numerical probability or through a random selection of six children produced by the model. In my work-in-progress, Sugar Moon, the heroine Allegra has a Spanish, blue-eyed biological father. Even though her mother was Filipina-Chinese, and despite Allie and her mother having brown eyes, she and her blue-eyed hero, Ben, have better than a 1 in 3 chance of a blue-eyed child. They could even produce a green-eyed baby (about a 13% chance), since Ben’s mother had green eyes, and his sister, Georgina, has green eyes. Are we having fun yet? I could play with this stuff for days.


Skin color tone guide for character development in writing toolbox from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

Speaking of color, descriptions of skin tone can get offensive quickly. Using food is fetishizing, cliché, and worse. If you have questions on this premise, read more from Colette at the Writing with Color blog. Here, though, let me direct your attention to part two of this series where Colette gives many wonderful suggestions, clarifications, and resources to help you decide what to use. It is not just about sensitivity; it’s about good writing, no matter who your characters are. I highly recommend the whole site.

Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series writer toolbox by Jennifer Hallock author

And so concludes the first in my writer’s toolbox series of posts. I hope these sites are as useful to you as they have been to me. Happy character creating, and happy writing!

The History Games: Micro-History Models

What is micro-history, you ask? It is the investigation of small units in history—an individual, a small village, a family, or a school, for example. Why is this important? Because large trends, the kind of history you get in encyclopedias, smooth out history to give you only the most average experience. And who likes to read about average? No one!

You want to know about the heroes and heroines—by definition, the outliers, the dangerous, the obscure, the interesting! Part of what authors are selling is the chance to live someone else’s life for a little while. Maybe your character is Marianne, a half-Jamaican hotelier seduced by a spy during the Crimean War; or Lily, a diplomat’s daughter who rescues a wounded American Marine in the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Either way, flat descriptions from encyclopedias won’t cut it. You need to mine primary sources for the convincing details of everyday life. Where else would you learn how Marianne chased off a thief with her rusty horse pistol, primed only with coffee? Or how Lily saved her favorite white pony from becoming dinner for starving Americans in Beijing?

Marianne and Lily are not typical, but they are believable because they are based upon real people—real outliers. My inspiration for Marianne came from The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacolewhile Lily is based on Laura Conger in Sarah Pike Conger’s Letters from China. Cool books! Where did I find them, you ask? At the end of this post, you will find a handout detailing many wonderful places to find free primary sources on the internet: books, articles, artifacts, photographs and videos (if available), illustrations, newspapers, and more, all from the time period itself.

But how do you use this information to create realistic characters and believable conflict? And how do you know what facts to use and what to make up? I came up with five models to help you figure it out:

The Ice Cube Tray Model

My fake characters Marianne and Lily are based upon the broad outlines of real people, but if I actually wrote books for them I would make up individual personalities, hopes, dreams, senses of humor, and more. For another example, let’s use a book I did write: Della Berget, heroine of Hotel Oriente, was inspired by a real-life outlier, Annabelle Kent, author of the memoir, Round the World in Silence. This middle-aged, deaf world traveler gave me the raw material to write a young, deaf aspiring journalist. To suit my own purposes, I gave Della a US congressman for a grandfather—loosely based on a real one, Senator Albert Beveridge—and plopped her in the middle of 1901 Manila, where carpetbaggers like her could make a name for themselves. Elements of Della come from Annabelle’s story, but the real person is an incomplete mold, like an ice cube tray. I filled in the rest.

The Straitjacket Model

What if you don’t focus on a specific person? In fact, quite the opposite. What if you highlight the social constraints of a chosen era—the rules that pen in the people? Guess what? You have the formula for a clever foil, or even villain, to represent “society” as a whole—without being average. I did this for Archie Blaxton, the man you loved to hate from Under the Sugar Sun. I took every horrible thing that came out of an American’s mouth (or memoir) about the Philippines, and I gave it to Archie. He became an amalgam of all the worst Americans I could find. (People suck, by the way.) I call this model the straitjacket.

The Open Flame Model

Real history can also provide conflict, too. I needed a scandal for Hotel Oriente, something to put a little pressure on my hero, Moss North. (Moss, by the way, was based on the real manager of the real Hotel Oriente, West Smith. Get it? West Smith became Moss North?) By searching some American newspapers, I found a real scandal that almost brought down the Oriente, gutted the Manila quartermaster’s office, and sent a handful of men to prison. Good conflict adds heat underneath your character’s feet, prompting them to make pivotal decisions—and declarations of love! I call this the open flame.

The Millstone Model

For my upcoming book, Sugar Moon, I gave my hero, Ben Potter, a troubled past. He was traumatized caused by a real event: the 1901 attack at Balangiga in which 48 American soldiers were killed by angry villagers. Ben’s memories will be shared in flashback form because they shaped Ben into the man he is, for better or worse. (Most of you would say worse, but give him a chance. Or second chance. Well, okay, third.) Ground down by the millstone of war, he is someone new because of this real event. It is a big part of his internal conflict.

The Fridge Magnet Model

Finally, I use real vignettes and anecdotes throughout my books. A lot of people remember the snake scene in Under the Sugar Sun, and I wish I could take full credit for it. But that really happened to a real American on one of his first nights in the Philippines in the early 1900s. He even had to buy a replacement snake, too! There’s some stuff you cannot make up, and you shouldn’t have to. But you do need those little details that make your book convincing.

Consider this: when you walk into a house, where do you find the small details important to that family’s daily life? On their fridge. (Or their medicine cabinet, but that’s an invasion of privacy. Shame on you.) Therefore, I call this the fridge magnet model. These little snippets tell your reader more about a character or setting than Mr. Exposition ever could. For example, the snake story told me how clever rural Filipinos were to use one pest to control another; and it told me that Georgie, for all her pluck, wasn’t going to get anything right her night in Bais. Her “fish out of water” anxieties will be essential to her later conflict with Javier.

Conclusion

Whenever I approach a primary source, I think: how can this event advance my story or my character development? And you need to be thinking this, too. No matter how much fun it is to research—no matter how many rabbit holes you want to fall down—everything should move your book forward. Stay focused on these five models. I hope they help!

By the way, here is the handout of websites that I cover in the workshop’s “how to” portion, along with some Google shortcut tips: Hallock Micro-History Researching Tips. Happy researching!