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Something About Character

Volume XIV, Issue Four | November 2018

Most novels are either character-driven or plot-driven. Mine are character drive, partly because I have a hard time with plots, but mostly because I find people the most interesting part of any novel, including mine. For me, a novel sometimes starts with a setting, say a house (The Bride’s House) or a place (Natchez in New Mercies.) But more often, it starts with the characters—a run-away bride (The Patchwork Bride) or a midwife (The Last Midwife) or a quilter (A Quilt for Christmas.) Then I go looking for a plot. The plot’s the toughest part. Right now, I have a wonderful setting, a character I love (and a dozen minor characters), and I’m lying awake at night trying to figure out what I’m going to do with them.

My characters are real people to me. It sounds corny, but other writers will tell you the same thing. You live with them 24 hours a day. That’s why I have to like my main character. I don’t want to spend all that time with somebody I can’t stand.

​​I was told by a creative writing teacher once that before you can start on a novel, you have to have dossiers on your principle characters. I tried that when I was writing The Persian Pickle Club. I was meeting a friend for lunch. She was late, and I started writing down characteristics of Queenie Bean, my protagonist. I listed her favorite radio programs, her politics, her appearance, whether she liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Then I thought wait a minute. Why would I create a character from a list of specifications? Maybe she prefers strawberry or doesn’t like ice cream at all. I’ll get to know her, and she’ll tell me about herself. So that’s how it works for me. I find out about my characters as I write about them. And over time, they get to know me and trust me with their secrets. Toward the end of Buster Midnight’s Café, I realized two of my main characters were going to get married. I hadn’t known they cared for each other that way, and I was thrilled. They were, too, when I told them. In another book, my main character revealed to me toward the end that her husband had been gay. That book never worked, but I used the situation in another.

Where do we get our characters? First off, you have to be careful about basing them on real people. You don’t want to get sued. As Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, you change the age or the sex or the looks, and if you base a character on a man, you give him very modest sexual equipment. No man is going to jump up and say, “Aha! That’s me!”

​​An exception is the bad guys. Writing fiction is a wonderful way to get revenge. I base my nasty characters on real people I don’t like. People don’t think of themselves as bad, so they never catch on. Besides, folks I don’t like don’t read my books.

I do get characteristics from real people—a weird hairstyle, a unique way of speaking, an odd walk. You find such things by simply watching people. When I’m bored standing in line at the grocery store or waiting at the airport, I study people, and like as not, I jot something down that I think I can use. That’s a great way to get dialogue, too, by the way. Some of the dialogue in Buster Midnight’s Café came from eavesdropping on conversations in the Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Mont., years before I ever wrote a word of fiction. I’ve even picked up details about one or two people at book signings, but I won’t tell you what for fear you might be those folks.

Join me at Windsor Recreation Center on February 1, 2019 from 5:30pm - 8:30pm: