Character worksheets usually have lists of features that supposedly add depth to the people who populate your works of fiction. Some include things like their favorite flavor of ice cream, which is not much help for historical fiction. And how is supposed to help you write their reaction to discovering a body on the library floor? Other worksheets ask for life extremes, like the greatest fear or happiest moment. I don’t rank the events of my life on a scale and couldn’t tell you what my happiest moment was. I’ve had many happy moments, lucky me, each happy in its own special way. I’m afraid of many things too, including driving in a hailstorm and spiders. What does that tell you about my investigative proclivities? (Nothing, is the correct answer.)
Most people will supply conventional fears like “speaking in public,” or big happy events like “the birth of my first child,” which I find completely unhelpful in character development.
I want to know how my characters live. Where do they work? What do they eat? What do they do in the evening? Where did they go to school and what sorts of students were they? What do they read? That tells me more about their everyday selves than the obvious, unrevealing questions in the worksheets. Besides, I’m nosy about these things.
All my characters are curious people with big dreams, even the bad guys, so they all read something.
You’d think someone would have compiled a list of books read by Francis Bacon, but no one has. The
information is directly available, since his library was not preserved. It could have been — one of his lifelong friends was Thomas Bodleian, founder of the eponymous library at Oxford University — but it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Francis borrowed most of the books he read.
That said, he read a lot. Some of what he read has been deduced from what he wrote. He must have read most of the major works on natural philosophy and religion written during his lifetime. He also read Montaigne’s Essays and Machiavelli’s The Prince. He had a solid foundation in Roman literature and would certainly have read things like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Holinshed’s Chronicles, the source Shakespeare relied on for his history plays.
Thomas Clarady loved chivalric romances, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a boyhood taste that lived on well into adulthood. When his wits were exhausted from studying legal works, he would turn to old friends. He devoured Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and Orlando Furioso, once Sir John Harington translated it into English in 1591. He also had a good grounding in Latin literature, but liked Christopher Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s The Art of Love better than anything assigned to him in school.
Benjamin Whitt also liked the romances, but devoured broadsides and pamphlets, the more outlandish, the better. These cheap publications were the popular literature of the day, strictly speaking beneath an educated man like men. Well, we all have our vices.
The example shown here is from the English Broadside Ballad Archive of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Penelope ‘Penny’ Trigg, the protagonist of my Lost Hat, Texas, series, has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. She can’t afford art books, but her family gives them to her for Christmas and birthdays. One of her most treasured books is a collection of photographs by the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. For fun, Penny likes science fiction and fantasy. Being an independent artist-entrepreneur herself, she gravitates toward indie authors like Lindsay Buroker, Sean Platt, and Johnnie Truant.
Tyler Hawkins, Penny’s venture capitalist boyfriend, mainly reads technology and business journals. He’s not long on imagination. Every now and then, like on a long flight, he’ll read something like Barry Eisler’s international thrillers.
Otilia ‘Tillie’ Espinoza is a romantic through and through. She prefers contemporary romance, especially ones with plus-sized heroines. She loved Katie Graykowski’s Perfect Summer. She also reads all of Courtney Milan’s books. She wishes there were more sexy romances with Latina heroines. The hero can be whatever, as long as he’s gorgeous and kind to animals. Krystal Cameron likes snappy paranormal chick lit and zippy fashionista mysteries, like those by Diane Vallere. Sadly, these heroines tend to encourage Krystal’s less than orthodox decision-making strategies.
Now, doesn’t that tell you more than today’s flavor of ice cream?