Characters That Keep It Real

by | Jul 14, 2022 | Tracy Clark, On writing | 5 comments

by Tracy Clark

I just gave my first author presentations on craft, one on writing settings and one on building book people (characters). I think I did okay. I hope I did. But I’m a writer, not Mr. Chips, so things might have been a little, you know, shaky.

I put the presentation together (with PowerPoint slides, no less. Tech and me do not usually get along), and it got me wondering how some of the writing greats tackled characters. I know how I create them. I mine the people “gold” around me. I’ve found some interesting characters in the doctor’s office, at the car wash, in line at the cleaners. Recently, I even found an entertaining one hanging around the Hudson News crabbing about the jacked-up price of a 20-ounce bottle of Dasani purified water in a 100 PERCENT RECYCLED BOTTLE. Curmudgeons make good characters. Who likes reading about a person who’s always fine with everything? I don’t.

Anyway, back to the greats.

Papa Hemingway was quoted as saying that “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

I can’t argue with that.

Dennis Lehane keeps it loose: “You create a bunch of characters and let them start bouncing into one another. That’s how a good story happens.”

I like that, too.

Agatha Christie novels.

Agatha Christie, the grande dame of all things murder most foul, played a constant game of eye spy, snatching characteristics and mannerisms from people around her—strangers, friends, acquaintances—and loading up her book characters with all those delicious details. This, she reasoned, gave her readers something they could identify with and made her characters real. In short, Christie, like Hemingway, like Lehane, keeps it real.

That’s character development in a nutshell. You want to populate your story with real humans, not stick figure people, not caricatures. You want messy people, struggling people, people with crooked smiles, bad attitudes. You want reality. Those are the nuggets of truth I put in my presentation. Crime writers like myself, however, then take those well-developed human book people and harass the bejesus out of them. We drop a body at their feet, put a stalker at their door, or a creepy spouse in their house trying to go all Charles Boyer with the gaslighting thing. Our choices are almost endless.

Poster for Gaslight include some of its characters.

But humanity first. Humanness pulls a reader in and gives them something to hold onto. As for approach, I’m Team Christie. Observation of human nature yields all kinds of interesting material. Most often that observation pays off when I’m delayed at the airport and observe a full-on adult temper tantrum that requires the intervention of a gate supervisor, then a security guard, then a city cop with cuffs and nothing but time to deal with Mr. Entitled’s public meltdown. 

You see humanity writ large, and small, at the airport. And I can use all of it. Some of this humanity could lead to a diabolical plot twist or a violent story death. And sometimes the perfect antihero, the perfect victim storms into my life with a roller bag they and you both know is not going to fit in the overhead compartment of the airplane. There will be a back and forth with the harried flight attendant, and Roller Bag, will have to check her faux Gucci carry-on, but the confrontation, the conflict, that’s what I’m there for. I will tuck it away like a squirrel stores nuts for the winter, and when I need Ms. Roller for a scene she will be there.

As I write this, I’m at the gate at yet another airport. There is a man sitting across from me who looks like he’d make a good killer. There’s an intensity in his eyes not dulled by the Starbucks egg and sausage wrap he’s chomping down. The woman beside him, maybe his wife, couldn’t be more over it. They aren’t talking to each other. Why? What’s she thinking? What’s he so intense about? Is their marriage a happy one, or are they just going through the motions?

Could traits from the characters in Strangers on a Train be found in strangers at the airport?

He could be one of those Strangers on a Train guys plotting to do away with her after the trip’s done. Or she could be a Black Widow and plans could already be in the works to dispatch the sausage guy who she knows is having an affair. Or maybe they’re just a couple of middle-aged homebodies moving slowly from point A to point B, weary captives to the whims of Unnamed Airlines that couldn’t care less if any of us get to where we need to go before the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

I eschew the homebody angle, of course. No energy in it. But the murder plot angle, well, I might be able to get a few good pages out of that. So, thank you, airport people, car wash people, and the airport shuttle driver guy with the bushy moustache that makes him look like Luigi from the Mario Brothers video game. I just might use that stache someday.

How do you find your characters?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Rogue Women Writers

    I love this analysis of creating characters through observation and all the rest….it gives me a bunch of ideas for my next novel. Thanks for the inspiration!….Karna Small Bodman

  2. Gayle Lynds

    That’s some great advice about creating characters from terrific novelists, Tracy. And then you put it into action with your couple in the airport. I vote for her to be a Black Widow type! Thanks for a terrific blog!

  3. Lisa Black

    I could not agree more, and not just because I just spent a great, great many hours on planes and in airports from Cleveland to Bucharest! Nothing that required cuffs during my travels, though….so far.
    Yes, WHY can people not understand that a carry-on and a personal item does not mean two carry-ons. Measurements are on the website, people! You did have time to look it up!

  4. Alex Kava

    Tracy, you’re so right! Airports are the best places for character studies and plot inspirations. Several years ago during a too long book tour, I was waiting for my next flight when three sheriff’s deputies marched seven men in handcuffs and leg irons through the airport. Marched them right to my gate! They boarded first. To the back of the plane. It was a short flight, but my previously exhausted mind spun plot scenarios the entire trip.

    • Chris Goff

      Wow, Alex. That would have my mind working, too!