Point Lobos to Character Development

Last October my wife and I took a day trip down to Point Lobos State Park which is just south of Monterey Bay on the California Coast.  This is typical northern California shore line with rocky cliffs, a few sandy beaches and the waves of the Pacific constantly eroding and reshaping the land.  We love walking next to the power of the sea and taking in the magnificent views of the ocean with its birds, sea lions, sea otters and other wild things.

It’s a place where I draw inspiration, a place where my mind can relax, and just breathe in creative energy.  While the point is largely a nature reserve, there is some history in the place.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans, indigenous people known collectively as Ohlone lived in the area, with Point Lobos being a spring and summer village site.  Earlier Spanish expeditions would have sailed past the point in the 17th and 18th centuries on their travels to explore Alta (upper) California and establish the mission system. The City of Monterey, which was the capital of Alta California under both Spanish and Mexican rule, is just a few miles north of Point Lobos.  From the 1860’s to about 1880 it was used as a whaling station and during the annual migration, boats would launch from there to hunt whales.  Later abalone divers took up residence for many decades.  By the 1920’s the point was well on it’s way to being a state park.

Walking the trail on one of the western cliffs and looking far out to sea, I imagined an early Spanish expedition sailing past and deciding to land in whaler’s cove to get fresh water and perhaps hunt for some food.  What would it be like to row in a small boat and land on that sandy beach in an unexplored land?  What would I find? What kind of people would take such an expedition?

Those were the questions I asked myself and after a bit of thought, a bit of google research, I wrote a simple short story titled, “Miguel.”  You can find this story on my blog at these links: part 1 and part 2.  It’s not an award-winning story and it’s far from a complete tale.  I’ve thought of spinning this into a larger historical novel.

A recent Writer’s Circle post, Inspiration for Characters got me thinking about how I came up with two of my characters and how I decided how they would react in the story.

First let me state that many of the details in my little story are likely wrong, like what kind of boat they used, the ranks of officers and other details.  I didn’t spend much time researching those. I did put some thought into Miguel and his friend, the Priest.  For the purpose of the story, I needed a soldier who would likely be sent ashore to hunt and an authority figure who would actually talk to Miguel.  A Catholic Priest seemed like a possibility.

In each case I needed to know some things about the characters so I would have an idea how they would react to the situations they were in.  First I thought of a history for each.  I know from history that Spanish soldiers weren’t always recruited from the best of society and thought that it might be good that Miguel had a little criminal in his past.  My real life model for this was a teenage boy I knew in high school, who at age 17 got arrested for drunk driving and wrecking a couple of cars.  Since he was about to turn 18 and no one was injured in his escapades, the juvenile justice system at the time was willing to make a deal and the young man found himself “volunteering” to join the Army and promising not to return to town until he’d earned an honorable discharge.

I did see this guy one more time a few years later and what I recall is some of the basis for Miguel.  As far as I know he made a career of the Army.  That is one part of Miguel’s inspiration. That along with what little Spanish I know helped me form a picture of a soldier recruited in Spain who joined to avoid confrontation with the authorities and who was just enough of a smart ass to get himself into minor trouble.

The priest in my story is a composite of a Catholic priest I knew as a teen and a few Methodist preachers plus the character Cadfael from the TV series starring Derek Jacobi.  Okay, I’ve only seen a couple of Cadfael episodes and didn’t really like it, but one thing I liked about Brother Cadfael was that he was a soldier before becoming a monk.  I wanted a priest that had some worldliness about him and wasn’t just a scholar or religious person.  I wanted someone who could identify with the crew because he’d been one of them and yet someone who the ship’s officers must respect because of his status as a priest.

As a teen I went on a retreat that was led by a Priest, who I’ll call Father Bob.  It was a spiritual development retreat (and no, I am not a Catholic and most of us who went weren’t).  Father Bob was a character.  He had great stories, was easy to talk to and yet had a deep wisdom that just easily flowed without sounding pretentious.  He also had his faults and past problems. Once, a few of us younger folks were outside in a garden talking during a break when Father Bob walked up.  He greeted us and put his arms in the sleeves of his robes.  I was expecting a lecture when instead he removed his arms producing a cigarette and a lighter. After lighting up he said, ”I needed a break too.  Anybody got a radio? I’d like to find out who won the Giants game.”

That’s my priest, an ex-soldier and a scholar who managed to get ordained and walks with both the elite and the commoners and isn’t afraid to break a few rules.

When you need a character for a story, think about people you’ve known and take the parts you need.  Then put them together to fit the needs of your story. With a little thought, you’ll come up with some interesting ones.

Keep writing!

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6 thoughts on “Point Lobos to Character Development

  1. Andrew, this is a fabulous post. Last December we drove from Santa Clara (we’d visited our younger son’s family) all the way to Orange County via the ocean route through Big Sur. I’ve lived in California since my thirteenth birthday but it was my first trip through Big Sur. As you stated, an amazing and inspiring experience. It took us 14 hours because we couldn’t resist stopping at every wave and rock. I love your story’s conception, especially the way you collected resources and experiences to build characters and plot. Planning to visit your blog to read Miguel.

  2. This is how I devined my paleohistoric thriller. I look out over the land and wondered how people so long ago were able to survive, accomplish their dreams, make a community. It is so fulfilling to write in this way.

  3. I wish I had the personal knowledge to write about the Spanish and most-western Native Americans of the ‘New World’. I imagine their culture being so much richer than mine because of the adventure and the heartache they’ve beared.

    I need to work harder on the development of my characters, mostly because I’d rather have all my stories based more heavily on them than the plot.

    My brother was stationed at Monterey when he was in the Navy. For this reason, I’d love to go see and explore it myself.

    • I’ve known a few people from local tribes, but most of what I do know is book learning. Right now I am reading a lot about the Ohlone peoples who live from San Francisco south to below Monterey. And I prefer character driven plots too.

      Monterey is a wonderful area to visit. Lots to see there.

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