Marilyn Shank is sitting on the Casting Couch today, talking about her books and how she finds the characters that live in them. She says she can't write about them until they begin revealing themselves and if she get's it wrong they sulk. Well having read some of her books as well as the blurbs for the rest of them, all I can say is that she's one brave lady. Every one of her characters get into a lot of trouble one way or another, and talk about strong-minded…there isn't a single one who is any sort of a pushover.
* * *
Welcome Marilyn. I really enjoy meeting fellow writers on my Casting Couch and to get us started I'd like to know whether you work through the plot first and then cast the characters when an idea strikes, or is it characters first? Or does it vary?
The characters always show up first. They begin revealing themselves and I get a vague idea of who they are. If I give them the wrong names, they won’t do anything but sulk. But when I change the name, bingo! They take action. I was a third of the way through one of my books when I woke up one morning and realized that my heroine was Irish. Her last name wasn't Mason, after all. It was O'Leary. By making that switch, Katie became much more real as a character. She had a stronger identity and so did her beloved grandparents who raised her. What a difference a name makes.
My characters continue to reveal their personalities as the book develops. I've tried plotting and once I even made a detailed outline, but when I finished it I had no desire to write the book. I don't want to know what happens as the story unfolds. I let the characters supply that information.
My last two books started in a really unusual way. The titles came first.
That really is different. Can you give an example from a published story?
Yes. When I read the headline Daddy with a Deadline on a cover story in the Kansas City Star one morning, it intrigued me, and I wondered what kind of book I could write using that particular title. I created a heroine who is pregnant with twins and whose husband doesn’t want the babies. Then the husband is in a serious accident and before he dies he asks his rancher friend to help Annie during the last month of her pregnancy. That’s how I approached working with that theme.
I noticed Bride by Mistake when I read through a listing of old movies and wondered if I could craft a story around that title. It's how the first of my identical twin books was born. I'm thrilled that Bride by Mistake, a Montlake Romance published by Amazon, has sold very well since it was released on January 8, 2013. And because I had so much fun writing Bride by Mistake, I wrote the second twin's story and call that book Bride by Chance. It will be released shortly.
I'm so intrigued by that idea. It's going to have me looking at newspaper headlines in an entirely different way in future. When you start writing a book, which characters are the hardest for you to develop? Is it the hero, the heroine, the villain, or the secondary characters?
For me, secondary characters are the hardest. Unfortunately, some of them decide to hijack the story and make it all about them. (I once had a manuscript rejected when a secondary character did exactly that.) But in spite of the danger, I enjoy creating secondary characters. I make them colorful by giving them unusual names or quirky habits. Often they own a cafe or bookstore and their presence defines the setting and adds local flavor. If a heroine’s best friend is a key player in the story, I make her less quirky and more like the heroine.
I love that one of your secondary characters got your book rejected for you. I thought my characters ruled my life but that is something else! When you need to decide how your characters should look do pictures inspire you or do you think of someone you know? Or perhaps you just rely on an active imagination or another method entirely. Have you ever based them on someone you know?
My characters are never based on a picture or on anyone I know. The few times when I've cut out pictures and put them on my bulletin board, my muse turned up her nose and said, “Are you writing this book or am I?” She's actually quite rude and controlling!
Many readers like to use their imaginations on how the hero or heroine look. I know I do. Of the six books I have published, only one has a picture of the hero and heroine on the cover. And while the publisher tried hard to make a good cover, I prefer the ones that don't show pictures of the characters. Of course this is personal preference.
I can identify with it though. I've written a book knowing exactly how my hero and heroine should look, only to find out that the cover designer had a different idea and I had a lot of adjusting to do. What about character traits though? Do you have a system for developing those? I know some people use Tarot or Astrology. Others produce detailed life histories. One writer I interviewed is so organized she even uses a Goal, Motivation and Conflict chart. What about you?
At various times I've tried to turn myself into a plotter. Many writers swear by plotting and claim they can write many more books because they plot. So several years ago I bought a thick notebook entitled Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I read the notebook from cover to cover, attempted to do some of the exercises, and wanted to shoot myself. I love to organize my home and my life, but when I try to organize or define my characters they revolt and run away. So I shrug my shoulders, turn the story back over to them, and it starts flowing again. Every writer has a different style that is perfect for them and makes them unique at their craft. I'm a seat-of-your-pants writer and I love it.
Me too Marilyn! Now just one more thing. Do you always like your characters? Are they people you would want to spend time with? Assuming they are not just a paper exercise, who, out of all the characters you have written about, would you most like to meet, and why?
The characters I create are my friends. After all, they've let me into their lives and allowed me to tell their stories. I don't know much about them in Chapter 1, but as the book evolves I learn more and more. And if they trust me, they'll tell me their deepest secrets. But it's a process.
I would most like to meet Liza O’Malley, the heroine of my new book Bride by Chance (June, 2013). Liza’s a high-powered Kansas City attorney who can’t stand by and watch her identical twin Meg marry the wrong man. (Bride by Mistake.) So Liza reconnects Meg with her high school heartthrob then moves into Meg’s cottage and falls in love with “wrong man” herself. I like watching Liza start to relax as she slows her pace. Her personality changes as she realizes she’s missed out on a lot by becoming a workaholic.
Stephen King and I think alike about character development and plotting. In his book On Writing, King says, “I…put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free or manipulate them to safety – those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot – but to watch what happens and then write it down…. The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next.”
I love it when one character throws in a twist I didn't see coming. By the time I’m nearing the end of the book, I know all their dreams, conflicts and goals and how they will reach their goals. In real life, only our closest friends and family members reveal intimate details of their lives. It's a gift when people open their hearts and trust us with their stories.
Who could ever disagree with Stephen King. His advice is always so good and you have certainly taken it to heart because the characters in your books really do come alive for you don't they? I also love that you think of them as a gift and that you keep on talking to them right to the end of each book. Thank you so much for sharing them with me.
* * *
Marilyn Shank worked as a legal secretary, office manager, proofreader, and editor before discovering her true passion: writing romance and romantic comedy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and has taught writing workshops in public schools and libraries. Among Marilyn’s favorite pastimes are reading, amateur radio operation, and traveling the world with her husband John. Originally from Chicago, she now lives in Independence, Missouri.
You can find her at http://www.marilynshank.com and all her books are available at http://amzn.to/14wzDRj
Sheila Claydon's books are available at http://amzn.to/101Cg0E