Tuesday, July 29

Character Evolution: Don’t Restrict Your Characters to Your Original Vision of Them

By Robin Leemann Donovan 

Part of the How They Do It Series

Characters have a way of evolving in a story, sometimes for the better, sometimes to the utter frustrations of their creators. Despite those hair-pulling moments, though, a character who comes to life on their own often turns into a star. Please help me welcome Robin Leemann Donovan to the lecture hall today, to share the story of one such character.

Robin is president of the advertising/communications firm, Bozell and author of the blog, Menologues, a humorous yet informative look at the trials and tribulations of menopause by someone who’s been there. Menologues is republished on two commercial sites: Vibrant Nation and Alltop, and has won regional honors for social media at the AMA Pinnacles and PRSA Paper Anvil awards. Her first book in the Donna Leigh Mystery series: Is It Still Murder Even If She Was A Bitch? won an AMA Pinnacle award.

Robin was born and raised in New Jersey but lived and worked in Connecticut for a number of years before moving to Nebraska in 1999. Starting her career as a high school English teacher, Donovan moved into advertising in the early 80’s. In 1999 she accepted a job offer from Bozell. Donovan lives with her husband and three bulldogs, Jasmine, Roxi and Sadie (Sweet Pea).

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Take it away Robin...

When I started writing my first comedic murder mystery, Is It Still Murder Even If She Was A Bitch?, there was no Clovis Cordoba Seville character. All of my characters were utilitarian. I had a murder victim, some amateur sleuths, and some cops.

Having loosely based the murder victim on a less-than-favorite acquaintance, I had plenty of opportunities for humor in my ability to mock her. Early in the process I began to realize that too much focus on mocking the murder victim would make my protagonist really unsympathetic.

I had characters that could give me some slapstick and some playful co-worker banter but I was worried about too much of the same type of humor over and over again. I was short on diversity and range in recurring comedic characters.

That’s when I introduced Clovis.

She is loosely based on a former co-worker with a stunning ability to make herself the center of absolutely everything. How had I forgotten about the importance of narcissistic humor – the backbone of any creative enterprise – in the mix? So Clovis was born.

Throughout the writing process I was able to introduce Clovis as the “irrelevant logic voice of reason,” a role the deranged woman who inspired her had mastered. The beauty of this was that I didn’t have to make fun of her – she took care of that all by herself!

One fairly typical comment by Clovis causes Donna Leigh, the protagonist, to ruminate, “I was really beginning to think that the only thing that would satisfy her would be to make her the murder victim, and it was getting more tempting by the minute. But, of course, being the second murder victim just wouldn’t do.”

Initially, Clovis was nothing more than an outsider looking to insert herself into the action, making her the antithesis to most characters in a murder mystery who labor to distance themselves from any possible suspicion and/or danger. The complexity of her character is based on the fact that fulfilling her self-centeredness is the main driving force in her existence trumping every other basic need. How many of us have not known someone like that?

Further along in the plot, her thoughtless selfishness (in her case this is not really redundant) causes the protagonist to contemplate murder, “At that moment the thought of killing her and spending the rest of my life behind bars seemed like the only logical course of action.”

Ultimately, Clovis proves to be more integral to the plot than I’d initially anticipated. As she moves deeper into the plother character’s sense of triumph grows palpably.

Clovis is ridiculous. One of my editors questioned whether or not anyone would believe such an impossible to believe character. Ironically, the very aspects of Clovis that are so ridiculous are behaviors I have absolutely seen her inspiration exhibit on a quasi-daily basis. Honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up!

I take great pride in the believability of all my characters. They are all based on real behavior patterns plugged into a fictional story. Unfortunately, for many who are not in a creative profession themselves – these characters can be a stretch of the imagination. I cringe whenever I see that my work has been reviewed by a scientist, knowing that they’re generally surrounded by logical, orderly minds on a daily basis, and that they don’t easily suffer fools. My work is not for them.

As writing progressed it became clear that Clovis could be so much more than just a comedic figure on the periphery of the plot fighting to get in. Her penchant to project her own self-aggrandizing behaviors onto Donna Leigh in a constant dogmatic tirade enables us to view the protagonist herself through a, probably more realistic but definitely less flattering and far more amusing, filter.

Clovis becomes the mechanism by which Donna’s own character flaws are illuminated in a way that enables us to laugh with her more than at her.

Clovis has gone from being a late-to-the-party add on to being my favorite character. She enables me push the envelope of the ridiculous and explore the machinations of a totally self-absorbed individual.

About Is It Still Murder Even If She Was A Bitch?

How does one react to the shocking news that a former colleague has been brutally murdered? Worse yet, you realize that your vitriolic relationship with the victim could land you squarely on the suspect list. That's exactly what happens to Donna Leigh, the energetic and somewhat sardonic owner of an Omaha ad agency, who jumps right in to the investigation – despite annoying menopausal symptoms – in order to keep the wolves away from her door. She manages to amuse as well as impress with her effective but unorthodox sleuthing.

As Donna and her colorful colleagues work feverishly to solve the case, they leave a trail of unintentional destruction in their wake; from injured police officers to collapsed buildings. Donna and her team stir things up enough to make the murderer nervous; after Donna receives a threat to “back off” things take on a more serious bent for her, but not for her ever vigilant colleagues who continue to animatedly bungle their way through the investigation until the murderer is behind bars.

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1 comment:

  1. Am I wrong in thinking it seems almost as if Clovis herself stayed the same and her role in the story evolved as she was given more room to act out who she was from the first?

    I have a theory that if you allow a character to be born into the story after the plot is partially determined, that character is almost guaranteed to be exactly what the story needs in a way that other characters can't be because they weren't molded FROM the needs of the story.

    Thank you for sharing Clovis's origins with us, Robin! =)

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