Developing characters can be a lot of fun. Some people say
their characters just come to them, they’re taking a shower and boom!—they hear
a voice, and from that point on the voice doesn’t stop talking to them. For others, it
comes more slowly. Perhaps there is a name you’ve always been hanging on to, or
you see a young girl’s face in your mind and you just know she is your heroine.
Others have an idea first and the character comes second. It is more of a creation,
a Mr. Potato head of sorts that word by word is slowly built over time. However
the characters are created, though, it is clear that once they begin to form on
the page, we no longer control them, they control us. As Ann Beattie said, “You
put a character out there and you’re in their power. You’re in trouble if they’re
My goal these days with characters is this: to be more specific.
At times, I’ve relied too heavily on more general stereotypes or archetypes. I
love writing satirical stories, as well as stories that verge on the surreal or
fantastical and sometimes it is easier to fall into that hole, get stuck with a
stereotype, rather than a real person, a person you could pick out of crowd and
say yes, that’s her, that’s my girl, there is no one else like her.
This week I’m going back to many of my stories to sneak in more
details, to add more character specificity. I always thought this involved huge
amounts of labor, but my teachers and mentors tell me not really, it’s actually the little things, sometimes a
word here, a detail there, that make all the difference. It’s about writing in details like the eagle charm
necklace my main character wears religiously, or the cuffed white shirt her
father wears. It’s about strengthening the voice—how she adds a thank you very much whenever she is trying
to make a point or how her father repeats himself when he is nervous.
Where do we find these details? How do we know they’re
right for our characters? I think this is where observation comes in. Where
stopping, sitting on a bench, and people watching becomes the most important
thing you can do for your story. You see an old couple walk by and notice the
way the husband keeps his hand on his wife’s lower back. Or you overhear the mailman
who keeps clearing his throat while talking to people on his route.
In her book Making a
Literary Life, author Carolyn See suggests making a list of people from your
own life and using them as inspiration. First, she recommends making a list of
the ten most important people in your life, like your mother, your best friend,
your godfather. Describe them briefly and quickly, writing whatever comes to
mind. Second, she says, make a list of the other kind of important people,
people that give you the willies,
like your crazy Aunt Sally or, as Carolyn See says, “A derivative poet I know
with a bad haircut.” She then suggests that these lists of people become your characters
for life. Your characters will always be
unique, she asserts, because “no one on earth is going to have the same list of
Most Important Characters as you.”
I think I’m going to complete this Most Important
Characters exercise this week, if nothing else just as a sort of “detail boot
camp,” some practice in locating details from my memory and getting them right
on the page. I can already think of a few characters in my life that would
translate beautifully and humorously to the page. I suppose the only problem left
is when those “characters” one day read my story and say, Hey, wait a minute, is that me?
character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.”