Meet Michelle L. Levigne as she blogs about creating characters. Ever wonder where a writer’s ideas come from? Michelle gives us a peek into the workings of her creative mind.
The Velveteen Rabbit wanted to be real, and so do our characters. At least, they would if they could think. And that’s what we want — characters so real they take over the story.
In my newest Tabor Heights novel, Cooking Up Trouble, I had to take Audrey beyond the pretty community theater actress readers saw in previous stories. First, I changed slightly ditzy to accident-prone. Much more sympathetic.
Her self-image problem makes her clumsy. The only place she is graceful is on stage, when she’s someone else. She likes being invisible when she’s offstage — that means she doesn’t want to be a star outside Tabor Heights.
Okay, if Audrey is happy staying in Tabor, what does she do for a living?
Here, I considered the needs of the story. Audrey and Steve team up to protect Max, his half-sister, from a paparazzi invasion while she prepares for her wedding. Their father is a Hollywood legend. Audrey is involved in the wedding. How? Not a bridesmaid — cliché.
At this point, Audrey waved a mixing bowl and wire whisk at me. Okay, so she’s a cook — and went to culinary school. Presto — she’ll bake for Max’s wedding.
Then it hit me: Dinner theater. Audrey loves the theater, and cooking/baking. She’s daydreamed about doing dinner theater. Instant sub-plot. She’ll team up with Steve to create the dinner theater. That pushes the two of them together. But I need something to push them apart.
At this point, I changed the original title, Scene Stealer, to Cooking Up Trouble. That’s what happens when you get to know your characters and they start to take over!
Audrey’s problem that pushes them apart has to be a secret pain. Something she’s ashamed of. Big enough to build a wall.
What about Audrey’s family? Does she have one? She doesn’t talk about them. I decided she’s from Philadelphia — American history, Founding Fathers, snooty society. Her family looks down on her for being involved in theater and going to culinary school.
Hmm, not enough to be estranged. Audrey is hiding in Tabor and uses a stage name. Why? So her family doesn’t know she’s succeeding.
Why? Deep-seated hurt.
Then it struck me — Audrey is illegitimate, and her family punishes her for her parents’ sins.
That led to a cascade of associations. Max is illegitimate, too, but accepted. Both her families get along. Audrey is jealous, and ashamed of her jealousy. She can’t tell anyone what she’s feeling — because she never confided her family problems to anyone. She certainly can’t confide in Steve that she’s having trouble with his newly discovered half-sister. She’s Max’s friend, cooking for the dinner theater owned by Max’s stepfather, and baking for her wedding.
Tangled enough for you? And that’s just one character. But now Audrey is real enough to take off on her own, sometimes writing scenes and reactions for me — making my job a little easier. Because when the details get thick and solid enough, it’s more like I’m reporting what real people are doing, rather than making it up as I go along.
And that’s when writing is FUN.
Steve returns to Tabor Heights to get to know his new sister, Max. Creating a dinner theater fascinates him, and soon so does Audrey.
As Max and Tony’s wedding draws near, so do paparazzi spies. After all, Max is the daughter of celebrities. When Audrey discovers a spy in her kitchen, she spins lies to protect her friends, but finds she needs protection when she is cast opposite Steve in Romeo and Juliet — and the media speculates she’s auditioning to join the celebrity family. Steve becomes her defender and partner in thwarting the paparazzi. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” is more than true for them, but past difficulties and shameful secrets may be building a wall too thick for even friendship to endure.