Making the Characters Real

By Susanne Matthews, author of Fire Angel and In Plain Sight

In Plain SightWhen people give writers advice, the standard answer is “write what you know”, but since I write romantic suspense filled with vicious, sadistic villains, I can’t exactly follow that advice. My life is really ho-hum compared to the events that pepper the lives of my characters, so, where do I get the inspiration for the characters? The answer, surprisingly enough, is that I get my inspiration from the people in my life.

Now, don’t get the idea that my entourage is filled with people bent on death, destruction, and revenge. The heavies are born in the myriad television programs and movies I watch and just a bit from the unkind things I see people do around me now and then—the man who yells at his wife and kids in public, the kid who bullies another, and let’s not forget the true life monsters who fill our daily news reports. Using them and the behaviors they display, I create my villains—mean, selfish killers with few redeeming qualities. I don’t want you to like the bad guys, and make them insufferable just in case. Misty’s husband not only is a mobster, in In Plain Sight, he’s also rude, and physically and emotionally abusive. No one’s going to feel sorry for him. The Fire Angel, in the book by the same name, kills innocent people in his vendetta to get the revenge he mistakenly thinks he deserves. Why would anyone empathize with him? Sure, we all feel we’d like to get even with someone now and then, but most of us don’t turn into maniacal killers to exact our retribution. Unlike Shylock, we don’t want a real pound of flesh.

When I say the people around me are the inspiration for my characters, I think of those who touch my life. They are the ones I rely on for the character traits that motivate the hero and heroine in the story. Each of the positive character in my book embody a character or physical trait of one of the people in my life. Jake’s limp in Fire Angel brings my father to mind—my dad has an artificial hip, not a lower leg, but the struggles to walk quickly and do all the things he used to do are similar. There are days when the pain is almost unbearable, especially after exertion. I can remember his frustration of learning to adapt to the new hip, and the depression when he had to admit that there were things he just couldn’t do anymore.

Fire AngelThe nicest person in my life taught me to look for the good in people. In a word, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. Minette, a secondary character in Fire Angel is like that. She wants everything to turn out well, and will do her part to make that happen. Charlotte, another secondary character in In Plain Sight, shares similar qualities, while Amber, from the same book, speaks her mind clearly, sometimes to a fault. You can get a glimpse of Amber in the excerpt below. Again, these are traits I have found in coworkers and sometimes, you need someone to call a spade a shovel.

I’ve also broken the rules of romance by having children in my stories, quite simply because my grandchildren have a huge influence on me at this time in my life. The girls are constantly doing crafts, and a houseful of snowflakes isn’t unheard off, and having to limit the number of items posted on the fridge just makes sense. Debbie’s flare for drama in In Plain Sight comes from that too as do all her colorful words like Hornekin, chibins, and hippohorse. If you want to know what they mean, you’ll have to read the book, but be careful and look behind you—someone could be watching.

People in our lives leave their marks on us. My father-in-law was a kind, understanding man who went out of his way to make me feel part of the family. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t remember him and the unconditional love he had for me right from the start. It’s that whole-heartedness that I gave Nick Anthony. He accepts Debbie as his own right from the start. He is also the kind of man you can trust with your life as Misty learns.

As I write other books, I use the same method to populate the pages of my stories. Think of the people in your life. Isn’t there someone you’d like to immortalize?

Excerpt from In Plain Sight:

Misty pulled together every shred of self-control she possessed and stuck out her hand to shake his. She could do this; she could touch this man and remain unscathed. He was a stranger; she would survive—she had to.

“Good to meet you ladies,” Nick said, completely ignoring the extended hand. “I’ll speak with each of you later, if not tonight then before the next rehearsal. This run-through will give me an opportunity to hear your voices, and then I’ll see if I have any pointers for you. I’ll be recording some of the rehearsal to help me with that.” With a curt nod, he followed Micah to the door and waited while Micah talked to one of the stagehands.

Upset by his lack of common courtesy, Misty withdrew her hand. Although he frightened her, he also intrigued her. His voice, with a slight accent she knew couldn’t be Irish—she’d recognize an Irish accent anywhere—was smooth, like warm caramel, and didn’t fit the aloof look he gave her and the frown marring his face. She shivered. What had she ever done to make him look at her that way? And why is he staring at her?

Could he be one of them? Could he be a trained assassin hoping to earn what she knew was a fat bounty on her head? She had no doubt he could be a dangerous man if crossed. She’d learned to look for the underlying signs of violence in everyone she met. She saw repressed anger and frustration in Mr. Anthony, if that was his real name. Not recognizing those signs five years ago had almost cost her her life. At first glance she’d thought him a stranger, but slowly she realized there was something familiar about him, and when she gave credence to that, it agitated the acidic butterflies that had invaded her stomach.

“Well, that was rude and awkward,” huffed Amber, keeping her voice just above a whisper. “He completely ignored your offer to shake his hand! Maybe he’s one of those germaphobes—you know, doesn’t shake hands, afraid he might catch something. You know the type. Or he could be some kind of superstar who refuses to let common people touch him. Either way, he’s a jerk!” She snorted and stared at Nick as if he were a parasite.

“Don’t let it bother you, Amber.” Misty fought to keep her terror in check. “I’m not offended. I’ve known more than my fair share of rude people, and although he may not have shaken my hand, he did speak to us. I just wish he’d stop staring at me like that.”

Despite everything, he attracted her physically as no man had ever done, and she longed to reach out and touch him, but the way he stared at her—the look on his face—made her blood run cold. He stood by the door waiting for Micah, a scowl firmly fixed on his face. Frustrated, on the verge of panic, she fought the childish urge to stick out her tongue at him or flip him the bird, anything to provoke a response from him. Why was he focused on her like this?

Laura, Micah’s wife as well as Pine Hills’s only doctor and a member of the play’s chorus, had finished putting on her costume and came over to join them. “Well, you’ve met the new music director. What do you think? I can’t imagine how Micah convinced him to do this; I’ve been after Nick for more than a year to get out and do something,” she said matter-of-factly. “This is the last thing I thought he’d ever do. Well?”

Misty felt the butterflies settle, and she relaxed. He wasn’t a stranger; he’d been in Pine Falls longer than she had. She’d let that wild imagination of hers conjure up all kinds of demons. If Debbie had inherited her imagination, it’s no wonder she has nightmares. She looked at the man who’d captured her interest. Now that she wasn’t seeing him as a potential threat, she noticed the stiffness of his shoulders, the way his hands fisted at his sides, and the way he held himself, tense and alert. She saw that the grimace he wore wasn’t one of anger, but of worry. She recognized the emotion; it was one with which she was intimately familiar—that fear of failure, of not being good enough, of being rejected.

Feeling more like herself, she smiled, prepared to offer him an olive branch, but although he was looking straight at her, he ignored her. She shrugged.

Too bad, she thought. I think we could have been friends.

She’d realized since she’d arrived in Pine Falls that friends were important—far more necessary than she’d ever thought they could be. Without them, a person was lonely and lost, the way she’d been until recently. Now, she’d fight for the life she had built here.

“I think he’s rude,” Amber answered Laura, interrupting Misty’s musing, this time speaking loud enough to be overheard, and Nick turned toward her. “Look at him staring at Misty as if she were a cockroach. I’ve a good mind to go over there and say something.”

“Shush, he’ll hear you, Amber,” warned Misty.

A deaf man could hear you, she thought, embarrassed that her friend should take the snub so personally.

“Well, it’s true.” Amber snorted. “You’re too nice. One of these days someone is going to stomp on your parade, mark my word. You need to learn to stand up for yourself.”

Misty was chilled by Amber’s premonition. Hadn’t she been stomped on enough already?

“Amber!” Laura’s voice was filled with reprimand. “He isn’t staring at Misty or at anyone else. Didn’t Micah say anything? I guess not. What is it about men and stating the obvious? Nick is blind.”

Misty watched color suffuse Amber’s cheeks as her own grew hot. She felt awful. She looked straight at Nick’s mesmerizing gray-blue eyes and noticed they were unfocused, the way eyes tended to be when someone was daydreaming. Why hadn’t she seen that earlier? Being so worried about her safety had made her oblivious to the fact that not only was he not staring at her, he probably hadn’t even realized she was there.

“Hell, Laura, I feel like such an ass,” hissed Amber. “Why isn’t he wearing dark glasses? For Pete’s sake, the man should have the decency to give us a few clues. It isn’t as if we’re all clairvoyant.”

About the Author:
Susanne Matthews grew up an avid reader of all types of books, but always with a penchant for happily ever after romances. In her imagination, she travelled to foreign lands, past and present, and soared into the future. Today, she has made her dreams come true. A retired educator, she now gets to spend her time writing, so she can share her adventures with her readers. She loves the ins and outs of romance, and the complex journey it takes to get from the first word to the last period of a novel. As she writes, her characters take on a life of their own, and she shares their fears and agonies on the road to self-discovery and love.

Susanne lives in Cornwall, Ontario with her husband. She has three adult children and five grandchildren. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys reading, chatting on the Internet with her writer friends, and hearing from her readers. You can learn more about Susanne and her books at