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Where Do Characters Come From?

By Mitch Silver

When people find out I write novels—thrillers—for a living, they often ask, “Where do you get your story ideas from?” No surprise, that’s the question a lot of writers get. The second-most-asked question is, “Where do you get your characters from?”

Hmmm, that one’s trickier. The obvious answer, even if I don’t phrase it this way, is, “From my brain, of course.” But, how did Larissa Mendelova Klimt, the heroine of The Bookworm, my newest historical thriller, get in my brain? Or Amy Greenberg, the Yale art historian who was the protagonist of my first book, In Secret Service? For that matter, how did any of the other characters—the good guys, the bad guys, the real guys (Noël Coward, Winston Churchill, Antony Blunt, JFK, Marlene Dietrich in The Bookworm; Ian Fleming and Princess Diana, among others, in Service)—lodge up there all together?

Alchemy? Don’t think so. I’m pretty sure characters come from the life you live and the people you know, the books you read, the movies you see. And the paranoia you yourself bring to the party.

David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carré, says, “My characters are drawn from bits of different people.” Sure enough, I used a girl I knew from high school (oh so long ago!) as the basis for Amy Greenberg, especially her ability to sketch and her love of all things Irish. My wife Ellen is probably the starting point for Larissa Mendelova Klimt and the way she solves problems by letting her unconscious do the work. I’m mixed in there as well, with my appetite for history and my willingness to research trivial tidbits to death.

But none of the above accounts for the fact that I write history-based thrillers, with incidents from the past serving as deadly tripwires in the present. You’ll remember that thrillers, as opposed to mysteries, are defined as stories in which the protagonist is in personal jeopardy … life-or-death jeopardy. I’ve never been in life-or-death jeopardy, unless you count the time, after a Lovin’ Spoonful concert in New York’s Central Park, I tried to make a left across Park Avenue.

No, there has to be something more for a writer of suspense than Mom and Dad and people you’ve known. More even than all the stuff books and movies and the TV news plant in your brain. For me … it’s the nightmares I sweat through.

My nightmares are always the same, ever since I was a little kid afraid of the dark: I know something I shouldn’t know, and I’m running away from the people who want to shut me up. Permanently. None of those naked-in-public or not-having-studied-for-the-test dreams some people call nightmares. I’m talking about the thugs who are in on the secret, the plot: the bad guys with guns … in cars … or in boats…or in planes—hunting me down. Maybe I’ve seen North by Northwest too many times.

Non-fiction writers have it easy. Their characters are flesh and blood humans whose looks, speech and other characteristics can be simply jotted down on the page. But novelists have more work to do.

I’m absolutely sure when I think of the people who’ll populate a story of mine that I transmute the real-life people I’ve known and the vivid fictional characters I’ve read or seen on the screen through the meat grinder of my terrifying dreams. So, since we’re talking about where characters come from, here are a few of my favorite books and films that have, well, plot-driven plots and characters you just can’t forget or ignore when you sit down to write.

Let’s start with by James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, which was cut in half to three days for the movie starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Ronald Malcolm, a guy who reads books for a living, goes out to get sandwiches and returns to find everyone else in the private library machine-gunned to death. He’s on the run from evil forces the rest of the way. A Mitch Silver nightmare stripped to its bare essentials.

Then there’s The Parallax View by Loren Singer, a book made into a movie starring Warren Beatty in the paranoid 70s. Same deal: Presidential aspirant is gunned down, and the photographer who got the picture has to run for his life.

Of course, Hitchcock was the real pro when it comes to ordinary people caught up in villainous plots. The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and the aforementioned North by Northwest all involve regular folks who uncover conspiracies that may cost them their lives. Certainly their sleep … and mine!

Those plot-driven plots and their evildoers constitute an acre of library shelves, going back to Graham Greene and The Ministry of Fear, made into a great noir film starring Ray Milland. For Milland’s character, an Englishman named Arthur Rowe, the trip to the charity fair in the countryside (as the blurb on Amazon puts it) “is a joyful step back into adolescence, a chance to forget the nightmare of the Blitz and the aching guilt of having mercifully murdered his sick wife. Just released from a sanitarium, he’s surviving alone, outside the war, until he happens to win a cake at the fair. From that moment on, he’s ruthlessly hunted by Nazi agents.”

I’ve read the book and seen the movie every time it comes around on TV. For the hours I’m immersed in the story, I am Arthur Rowe, and I hang on by my fingernails right to the thrilling end.

There’s at least as much good nightmare material in William Goldman’s Marathon Man. Another group of Nazis, this time leftovers from the war, are after Tom “Babe” Levy, a graduate student in (what else!) History at Columbia. They want to know what his CIA agent of a brother might have told him before he died. Dental visits will never be the same.

Now that I think about it, I probably based my suave villain in In Secret Service, a guy I named Devlin for good reason, as much on the American baddie in Marathon Man as on anyone I’ve known in real life.

Want to feed a nightmare? Ira Levin went all the way in Rosemary’s Baby, where nice, sweet Rosemary finds herself living next door to a coven of devil worshipers in the Dakota. Mayhem ensues.

Last but absolutely not least is Coma, by Robin Cook. His protagonist, Susan Wheeler, is an attractive, 23-year-old third-year medical student working as a trainee at Boston Memorial Hospital. She stumbles upon something not-quite-right in OR 8: people come in for minor surgeries and go out vegetables.

Now that I think of it, I must have modeled my Professor of Geo-History at Moscow State University, Lara the Bookworm, at least partially on smart, determined Susan Wheeler. They, too, must match their wits against the evil that men do. Without knowing who those evil men are.

So the next time someone asks me where my characters come from, I’ll answer truthfully.

“I dream them up.”


Mitch Silver was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale (B.A. in History) and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know the law through Wednesday, but after that…”). He was an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies, living in Paris for a year with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account. A previously published novelist (In Secret Service), Mitch and his wife Ellen live in Greenwich, Connecticut and have two children: Sloane is a nurse at Wake Forest Medical Center and Perry is an actor and the drummer for Sky Pony, a band in New York. Mitch also won the American Song Festival Lyric Grand Prize for “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” His blood type is O positive, and he always writes his biography in the third person. For more info, please go to mitchsilverauthor.com.


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from Writing Editor Blogs – WritersDigest.com http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-genre/mystery-thriller/thriller-story-ideas-where-do-characters-come-from

Nicola Yoon Discusses Diverse Books and The Sun Is Also a Star, a Novel About Immigration and a Star-Crossed Romance


Novels are an essential part of the American conversation about race, immigration and politics, from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. A new generation of gifted narrators are detailing the experiences many minorities face. The world of young adult fiction has exploded with bestsellers like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Jason Reynolds’s All American Boys. And now, Nicola Yoon joins their ranks.

Yoon’s poignant and timely The Sun Is Also a Star hit the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for forty weeks. This, after her first book, the bestselling Everything, Everything debuted at number one on that list. Here, we talk with Yoon about her new work, seeing herself reflected on the pages of a novel, and the need for diversity in books.

You have said The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison was your mirror book. What about that book made you feel as if you saw your reflection on the page?

It was literally just the fact that the main character was a black girl that had an internality. You saw the things that were happening to her, and you saw the things that she thought about what was happening in her neighborhood and her life. She was a real person. She was given the full measure of her humanity. That was what impressed me.

Your books are incredibly diverse. Is that intentional? Why are diversity and inclusivity so important in writing?

The world is diverse. Our job as writers is to tell the truth and reflect that.

Nicola Yoon, Author of ‘The Sun Is Also a Star,’ on Her Writing and Publishing Journey

Looking back, what do you think you did right that helped you break in and become the novelist that you are now?

I have been very lucky. Good timing helped. I don’t know what it was or why I was the first black person to debut at number one in YA on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2015. I’m proud of being the first, but the fact that I was the first in 2015 highlights the need for diverse books.

How has your Jamaican heritage affected your writing?

I think the rhythm of my writing is because of my heritage. Being an immigrant, I think I approach America from a bit of an outsider’s perspective.

Tell us about your current novel, The Sun Is Also a Star.

A poetic boy name Daniel tries to convince a scientific girl name Natasha to fall in love with him in 12 hours. They only have 12 hours in New York City because her family is being deported to Jamaica. I think it’s about all the connections we make [in life], about how we are all connected. All the people they encounter during the day are pushing them together or pulling them apart, even the strangers. It shows how they are affected by people we think are strangers. I think we are all affected by the history of the people around us.

Tell me the story behind the story. How did The Sun Is Also a Star come to be?

I went to Cornell [University] and Carl Sagan lectured there. I was a big fan of his. His thoughts influenced me. Bill Gates said that we shouldn’t teach subjects in isolation because all subjects influence each other. So the book was influenced by that.



You once said that in Jamaica everyone is black, so you got to be who you are. But being African American, a lot of times you get put into a box, and you have to fight against that. Are you still fighting against being put in the box that society would like you to live in?

Growing up in Jamaica, we didn’t have to fight to be seen, and we could be who we were. In America, people of color often feel that society is telling them who to be. Having said that, I don’t want to move back to Jamaica. I just want to raise my child to have a good self-image.

Deportation and immigration have been in the news constantly. The Sun Is Also a Star humanizes the struggle of the immigrant. Why was it important for you to do this?

It’s important to humanize immigration and race because we are talking about people. These are human beings, friends, and neighbors. They are not just policies. I think it’s important to have stories like this. You can’t read 300 or 400 pages about someone and not feel empathy for them. Books are important because they help bring empathy.

People constantly say that publishing lacks diversity. They say it is hard for black people and other minorities to become published. With the success of people like yourself, Angie Thomas and Nic Stone, do you think publishing is becoming more inclusive?

Publishing is still not diverse, but I think we are on the path to that. I think the financial success of me, Angie, Nic and other people will help, too.

Tell me about your work with We Need Diverse Books.

I did their social media for a long time. I do presentations at schools talking about the need for diverse books, and I donate money as well. I get letters from black and brown girls all the time who tell me they don’t get to see themselves in books. When I wrote The Sun Is Also a Star, this 40- to 50-year-old Asian man I saw at an event was crying because he said he never saw books with the Asian male being the lead and getting the girl. We need diverse books. People need to see themselves on the pages. I don’t want my daughter to be 16 before she sees herself on the page of a book.

I talk to schools and librarians about how [social] issue books and non-issue books save lives. People need to know they can slay dragons, and they can be funny, smart; they can overcome a struggle and are worthy of falling in love. Issue books are important, too. However, we [minorities] are full people. We are more than just oppressed. I don’t wake up every day feeling miserable and thinking, “Oh my God, the struggle.” Most days I wake up happy thinking, “My kid really wants blueberry waffles,” or, “Here comes my husband, David, with coffee for me.” That’s how I start my day. I am joyful. Most people are like that, but we don’t see it represented enough. Non-issue books are important too. We need diverse books.

We live in a harsh and divisive political climate. You have said that people are fighting for the soul of this country. How would you suggest that readers and artists like yourself get into the ring for that fight?

Right after Trump was elected, I had an issue with this. We live in a world where there are some people who would deny me my right to even exist, so, for a moment, I wondered if my books mattered—because I write romance. It took a lot of soul searching. I came out thinking it does matter. Books breed understanding and empathy. You can’t spend 300 pages in someone’s head and hate them. It is hard to hate what you understand. As artists, I think we have to keep writing respectful, truthful literature. Dictators and strong men burn books because books have ideas and the power to change the world. I want to be a part of that change. I also think you should give money to the ACLU, protest if you need to, and resist.

Nicola Yoon’s writing on love humanizes the struggles that immigrants face; she pens stories and characters as varied and as diverse as the nation. Her success shows the world how much we need diverse books.


The post Nicola Yoon Discusses Diverse Books and <i>The Sun Is Also a Star</i>, a Novel About Immigration and a Star-Crossed Romance appeared first on WritersDigest.com.

from Writing Editor Blogs – WritersDigest.com http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/writers-perspective/nicola-yoon-need-diverse-books-sun-also-star-must-read-novel-immigration-star-crossed-romance