Deb: Where Characters Come From

The part of a writer that is available for public viewing is what’s on the page. This is the truest version of themselves. Malcolm Gladwell
Because I taught high school for many years, I sometimes quip that I enjoy writing because my characters, unlike my students, do as I tell them. Except when they don’t, which is often.
Writers are more parent than puppeteer, struck with wonder (and occasionally, with horror) at the capacities of those we’ve brought into the world. And as with the question of where babies come from, it’s both easy and hard to talk about where characters originate. Characters come from a writer’s imagination, of course, but the curious mix of discovery and planning and circumstance that yields a true and compelling character is tough to pin down.
Emerging writers often ask whether they should create dossiers on their characters, lists of details that define them, before they start writing. Implied is the broader question of whether characters are born out of inductive or deductive thinking – that is, whether characters are built or whether they unfold.
Tom Rachman’s novel The Imperfectionists is a wonderful study in the adept birthing of characters. From the first page, Rachman earns the reader’s trust with details carefully selected and ordered: Lloyd presses against his own front door, wearing white underwear and black socks, toes curled against the chilled air that rushes under the door, his breath whistling in and out of his nostrils as he listens intently, hearing first silence and then voices, a man and woman across the hallway. As the woman approaches his door, Lloyd hustles to the window and positions himself nonchalantly, looking out over the courtyard. The woman is his young wife; she has her older husband’s permission to do as she pleases with the man across the hall.
A washed-up freelancer so desperate for a paycheck that he dines on chickpeas straight from the can, Lloyd’s life is a series of failed relationships, including those with his adult children, one of which forms the crux of this first chapter. For the rest of the book, which is as much a series of linked short stories as it is a novel, Lloyd is mentioned only in passing. Yet at the end, the reader still cares deeply about him.
In a conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, Rachman discusses where his characters came from. “Several are tricky types,” he says, “the sorts who, had I met them in a newsroom, might have prompted me to run. But on the page, I had fondness for them. It’s writing that did this. To form these characters, I tried to conceive of their motives, resentments, disappointments; I watched them gazing unhappily into the mirror, or wincing at office slights.”
The process he describes is both inductive and deductive. Lloyd is at his most fundamental level a despicable journalist: he fabricates a story, and he exploits his son in order to do so. That’s induction – a premise. But to conceive of Lloyd’s motives, resentments, and disappointments, Rachman listens as Lloyd listens and watches as Lloyd watches. He gathers facts about Lloyd, discovers who Lloyd really is. That’s deduction, and what it yields, perhaps unexpectedly but not tangentially, is compassion.
Characters may begin as types – in Lloyd’s case, the despicable journalist – but our fondness for them grows when we turn them loose on the page. An author’s observation of his characters, Rachman says, “stirs compassion that, in real life, is so often obscured by our own motives.” The observational process sounds almost scientific, but compassion as its ultimate end distinguishes the writer’s work from the scientist’s, which by its nature requires a dispassionate approach.
The question of how much of an author herself wriggles into a character can be considered from a similar vantage point. “You separate off a potential in yourself—perhaps even just an emotion – and place it in the petri dish of this other character,” Rathman says, “and watch what becomes of it. That’s why these characters feel like parts of me, though they’re not in any recognizable sense me.”
Try This: Read Paris Review interviews with a few of your favorite authors, then create your own “Paris Review” interview with one of your characters. Begin with a paragraph or two to set the scene for your interview: time, place, season, and weather as well as how the character looks and how she is dressed. Open with easy questions for your character, then segue into more challenging ones, such as “What’s your definition of love?” and “What secrets are you keeping from your creator?” Reportedly when author Allen Gurganous did this exercise with one of his characters from The Oldest Confederate WidowTells All, he ended up with 100 pages and a fresh voice for his character.
Check This Out: To sum up all that Tom Rachman does right with character would take far more than a blog post. Better to read The Imperfectionists for yourself, a novel that makes the question of character versus plot seem utterly irrelevant. 

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2 thoughts on “Deb: Where Characters Come From”

  1. Excellent and timely post for me, as I'm working my way deeper into characters in a new novel. It's always so weird to enter a new story knowing it's a combination of luck and discipline and alchemy, and trusting that if you just show up, so will the characters. Thanks.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great post and thoughts about induction vs deduction, and the role of compassion. The Imperfectionists has been on my TBR list for a while. This moved it up a notch!

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