characters · On Writing

Characters Among Us

No clue who he is —

Need a kid in my story.

Here’s a perfect one!

Flipping through a local magazine, I stopped dead. There they were. The two guys who started the whiskey company. My protagonist meets them in Chapter Three.

Actually, she only meets the shorter, stocky one, but he’s a straight-talking, engaging character who immediately alerts her keen new business prospect antenna into twitching. Many chapters later, they meet again in a pivotal scene — and still later in the story, he and his partner play important roles at the conclusion.

The well-written, deeply researched story about these fascinating entrepreneurs does not interest me nor impact my story. As accomplished and bright and articulate as these businessmen are, they also do not interest me nor impact my story. It is the picture that I focus upon, that makes the characters come to life, speak, and move as they do in my story. That’s all I need.

I don’t go looking for characters on purpose, notebook in hand, ready to jot important notes about the individuals that I see on the street, in movies, on television or the supermarket checkout line. They arrive fully formed and three-dimensional beings, living their own lives and willing to share them with the story. They are indifferent to being included and to being killed off as an unnecessary darling — their life goes on regardless of what I do.

I once met a writer who refused to go to certain parts of Manhattan because she didn’t want to run into any of the characters from her just-published novel. There were streets, corners, and venues that were strictly off-limits. Her husband thought she was nuts, directing him through complicated evasions in the streets of upper New York City (and her husband’s ridiculous argument over it was the story she shared over weak tea and stale muffins).

What did she think was going to happen? I regret not probing further. My characters like me. They know that I work extremely hard to be fair, to present the full person and not a useful stock figure. We are clear that any mistakes are my own — and that the characters happily assist when it’s truly terrible. I don’t imagine that my characters would be angry, annoyed, or violent if we ran into one another. At absolute worst, they might ignore me.

When I do go wrong and am genuinely bewildered, characters have spoken to me, in my mind, separate and distinct from my own thoughts — and I know this is not some form of old-fashioned creative madness. It’s just a character speaking up on their own behalf to correct, guide, and deepen my understanding of them so that my portrayal is dense with their truth and beauty. Many other writers have told me that they also cherish and work with aural encounters of the character kind.

No character has ever come directly from my own real life experience. My imagination is too wild and rampant strong for that and my stories too original to lean on rickety impressions and myopic analysis of people I have encountered. While I might play with a tiny aspect of another person’s experience, nothing is ever lifted whole and shoved complete into my work.

I have read deeply into subjects that my characters inhabit. For a vintage clothing stylist, I have researched the fashion doctors and other style guides from the early 20th century, gaped through countless couture coffee table books, gaining a view into a world and history that I would never otherwise have had. It is the character who guides me gently away from the research and back into the story when he or she feels that I’ve got enough. They’ll send me back for more if necessary.

I like magazine pictures the best, although newspaper social and lifestyle pages can be very good as well. Self-important top ten lists of the rich, powerful, famous, accomplished, and newsworthy can also yield the visual image that I can use as a springboard to the character that I have already imagined and set into action in the story. There are endless possibilities on-line, but I prefer real-world pictures that I can tuck into a folder. There are also happy accidents of discoveries unearthed in postcards, brochures, and books.

The whiskey master is a favorite. Astute, sharp-tongued, and wary, he plays a small, but pivotal role in the protagonist’s evolution. He’s not a key player, but he sure is important — and I have a picture of him to ensure that I have correctly depicted his grounded, intelligent, and guarded way of being in the world.

I don’t need a child in this story. Or do I? That kid is powerful joy. Maybe I should work in a dog? No, too easy, too obvious, and the dog wouldn’t move this story along. I’ll save them for another story — maybe they can be a team…

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