Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Author Denise Hamilton On Creating Characters

Author Denise Hamilton writes crime novels and is editor of LosDeniseHamiltonHeadshot Angeles Noir, an anthology of new writing that spent two months on bestseller lists, won the Edgar Award for “Best Short Story” and the Southern California Independent Booksellers’ award for “Best Mystery of the Year.”

Denise’s new novel, DAMAGE CONTROL, was published by Scribner on September 6 and has received raves from Kirkus (In a novel that marries celebrity culture, surf noir and the bonds of friendship, Hamilton is at the top of her game) and James Ellroy (A superb psychological thriller). 

Denise stops by Thoughts in Progress today to answer a question about her writing for me. Denise is also offering 1 free copy of her book to a lucky (US only) visitors who comments on her post between now and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24. Be sure to leave your e-mail address if it's not included in your profile.

Mason: In what order does your characters come to life - name, physical description, personality? Of these three elements, which is the easiest to develop and which is the hardest?

When I first start to envision a character, it’s usually a fuzzy outline, not much more than a template. I often know what they do for a living, but it takes a while for the character to gel in my head. The physical description and name are not as important as the character’s personality, and that develops as I write. For instance, in my latest book DAMAGE CONTROL, I knew that one of the main characters would be an important politician who hires a PR firm when a beautiful young female aide in his office is found murdered. After considering and discarding various titles, I ultimately decided to make my politician a U.S. Senator. There are only two per state, and they are very high-profile and powerful.

DamageControlFinalThen I started layering in other details. My Senator would be a decorated Vietnam vet (an Air Force pilot) in his first term in office. He would be ambitious of moving into even higher office, and his party would already be considering him as a future vice-presidential candidate. This would make the stakes higher for my Senator character: He has to avoid any scandal surrounding his aide’s murder. He could not have gossip taint or ruin his career. And of course he claimed he didn’t do it!

Next I shaded in more facts. I gave my Senator a brother who managed his political campaign. The brother wouldn’t be as tall or handsome as the Senator. He would be a little sinister and sleazy. They would be like a good cop-bad cop duo.

I wanted my Senator to be tall and handsome, with a leonine head of graying hair. His well-made suits would hang well on him. He would be charismatic and open and people would like him and believe in his sincerity…  I confess that I was thinking just a little bit of the Kennedy brothers as I wrote, but an updated 21st century version of America’s best-known political family. So as I envisioned all this, Senator Paxton slowly he came to life under my fingers via the words I put in his mouth, scenes he moved through, his body language, and the characters he interacted with. 

But my Senator also needed a good patrician name. One that was solid and sounded the way a well-made piece of antique wood furniture looks. A name that suggested rugged, solid East Coast WASPy blood. I tried and discarded a lot of names before I found the first name I liked: Henry. That is a classic name. To me it has a ring of old-fashioned (in the best sense) honesty. I paired it with Paxton. Together the name worked for me. It was rock solid. It conveyed a kind of old-money WASPY sophistication and lineage that I was looking for.

And as I wrote, U.S. Senator Henry Paxton sat up, rubbed his eyes and became a three-dimensional person to me. And with that, I was off to the races.  

Another issue I wrestled with in DAMAGE CONTROL was how to characterize the changing relationship between my protagonist Maggie Silver and her estranged best friend Annabelle Paxton -- who happens to be U.S. Senator Henry Paxton’s daughter.

Maggie and Annabelle attended the same private Catholic girl’s high school. Maggie was a poor scholarship student and Annabelle came from a wealthy and glamorous family on L.A.’s Westside. They were opposites in many ways, but they bonded over music and fashion and became best friends forever and Maggie spent two years practically living at Annabelle’s large Spanish house overlooking the ocean. It was a refuge from Maggie’s own troubled home life. Then one night on the beach, something awful happened and the girls had a falling out. Years later, as DAMAGE CONTROL opens, the girls --  now grown up --  are about to be thrust back together by the murder of Senator Paxton’s aide.

So how did I write about all the emotional twists and turns in their relationship? 

For starters, I really had to put myself into the mindset of a 15-year-old girl and recall how psychologically intense but also fragile and filled with turbulent emotions girl friendships can be at that age. Everything is so raw and the stakes seem so high with boys and slights and public humiliations. Music and clothes develop an almost totemic importance. There is also a growing awareness of one’s sexuality, and the strange and magical power that one wields because of it, one that pubescent girls both sense instinctively and also don’t wholly understand when it comes to consequences. It’s like this genie that’s been unleashed from a bottle that you have to learn how to control, or at least guide.
I think the hardest part of writing about Annabelle and Maggie was finding the tone for the very slow, hesitant, uncomfortable and nervous rapprochement that takes place when they finally see each other again as adults, 15 years after their estrangement. The scene had to be prickly and awkward, filled with memories and fear that they would be total strangers to each other now. Maggie would worry that Annabelle would notice the tiny wrinkles forming around her eyes. She’d fret about what to wear to their meeting. She’d check her lipstick and hair in the car mirror before walking up to the house. Maggie would also feel insecurity because she was divorced and didn’t have kids and was living with her mother and still struggling financially, while Annabelle was still the Golden Girl. Or so she thought.

In the second half of the book, Maggie and Annabelle are forced to face their past and negotiate a delicate new friendship that may or may not survive the revelations that gather as the book reaches its climax.

So while DAMAGE CONTROL is a thriller, it’s also a psychological study of two young women, which is why I say it has elements of girl noir. I learned a lot about writing complicated, at times conflicted characters. Teenaged girls can be competitive, jealous, supportive, loving, empowering and catty, all within the space of five minutes. I suppose some of that always stays with us, but as adults we find ways to mediate and suppress those feelings, and our priorities change and hopefully we grow a bit more wiser and mature. When we’re younger, it’s all on the surface, and I wanted to find a way to show the raw emotion and power of female friendship. I hope if you read DAMAGE CONTROL you’ll think I succeeded.

Denise, thanks so much for guest blogging. I enjoyed learning how your characters are created and brought to life. Bit by bit they do become three-dimensional. Wishing you much success with DAMAGE CONTROL.

For a bit more background on Denise. She also edited Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics, with stories by Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, Chester Himes, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar and others. She has five books in the Eve Diamond series and her standalone book, THE LAST EMBRACE, set in 1949 Hollywood, was compared to Raymond Chandler.

Denise’s books have been shortlisted for the Edgar, Macavity, Anthony and Willa Cather awards. Her debut, THE JASMINE TRADE, was a finalist for the prestigious Creasey Dagger Award given by the UK Crime Writers Assn. Her books have been BookSense 76 picks, USA Today Summer Picks and “Best Books of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Toronto Globe & Mail.

Prior to writing novels, Denise was a Los Angeles Times staff writer. Her award-winning stories have also appeared in Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel and New Times. She covered the collapse of Communism and was a Fulbright Scholar in Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War. Denise lives in the Los Angeles suburbs with her husband and two boys. She also writes a perfume column for the Los Angeles Times. For more on Denise, stop by her website DENISE HAMILTON. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

If you’re a writer, how does a character come to life for you? If you’re a reader, what elements do you look for in a main character to make them believable to you?


  1. Denise, thanks again for guest blogging. You make creating characters sound like fun work. Best of luck. BTW, the perfume column sounds intriguing.

  2. Wow, this is the first time I've heard of girl noir. I like how you discover your characters. I think the discovery of their likes and dislikes, their backgrounds, their family, and their future is something that thrills me about writing. We are inventing new people! How cool. Thanks for sharing this post with us.

  3. Hi, Denise,

    I have to get your book to read! It sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing how your characters come alive.

    Hi, Mason, thanks for hosting!

  4. Hi Everyone, and thanks to Mason for inviting me to guest blog.

  5. I'm about 75 pages into DAMAGE CONTROL right now and am really enjoying it. Finding it very hard to put down. So far, I'm liking the whole California-ness (a word?) of it. The insights that Denise shared above were very interesting to me. Thanks for hosting her, Mason, and thanks, Denise, for writing such an absorbing book!

  6. As to how my characters come alive, it's such an interesting issue for writers. I think that all of my characters live in suspended animation in a certain part of my brain, where I can visit them from time to time when I need to write about them. For example, I haven't visited Eve Diamond, my series reporter sleuth, in a while because I have been writing other books. But she's in there, waiting for me. Right now, I'm especially fond of my two teenagers Maggie and Annabelle, because I remember so vividly what it was like to be 15, 16, filled with angst and dreamy hope. They are difficult characters to write, because of the stormy emotions, but very fulfilling when I do capture their essence in a scene.

  7. Denise is an awesome writer. Buy her books!

  8. hmm, not sure why that last post posted as "unknown." Should have read Denise Hamilton, in case anyone's confused.

  9. Aw, thanks David. I am waiting for your first novel!
    - Denise

  10. Nice to meet you here, Denise. My characters usually begin as a shadowy image, too. As much as I think I know about them before I write, they usually surprise me in the first paragraph or first line of dialogue.

    Your book sounds awesome. I'm putting it on my list.

    Thanks for the intro, Mason.

  11. I think for me the personality and name hit at the same time. Looks come later.

  12. As I reader, characters really make the novel for me. I want them to be real--with problems and pleasures, emotional issues and growth. I want to care about what happens to these folks.

    You're book sounds so good. I look forward to reading more. Thanks for visiting. (Email in profile.)


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.