This weekend I’m going to a reunion of my high school graduating class. As The Feedsack Dress takes place in ninth grade, I’m expecting a lot of people to ask me if such and such a character is so and so from our class.
No, he/she isn’t.
For decades I’ve been a nonfiction writer and dealt strictly with facts. The facts leave little wiggle room. One reason to write fiction is to control the action and the people, to keep the facts and credibility in mind, but to create my own world.
Naturally I base that world partially on people I’ve known, emotions I’ve felt, events and incidents I’ve been part of or observed or read about. In a very broad sense, all fiction is autobiographical. We write from the truths we’ve learned. But if excitement ruled the days of our lives, we wouldn’t write fiction. A lot of the fun comes in taking all those things in the dark hole of the subconscious and creating something unique.
One or two characters suddenly appear in a scene and intrigue you enough to get to understand them as you do few people you know. You decide not only what they look and sound like but also what they’ve been doing all their lives and what they like and don’t like. Most of that never appears on the printed page, but it has to be in the writer’s head.
You choose a name.
I spend a lot of time choosing names for my characters. I use books on naming babies, I read obituaries, I read the names of the crew at the end of movies, I browse the phone book, I listen, I make them up. The name has to fit the person, and each person must have a distinctive name readers can remember. You need a mix of opening sounds and of number of syllables. I often rename minor characters because they change as I write about them, but once I name the major characters, that’s who they are.
Most characters serve to further the plot or to reveal other characters, particularly the main character. The girl in the feedsack dress would lead a dull life if she didn’t have the mean queen to battle. And every school, every organization, every social group has a mean queen or king, although some are smart enough to hide it as they get older.
Everyone has friends as well as enemies, and for the feedsack girl the friend is another outsider, the girl who seems older and wiser, who draws gossip like a magnet, who protects herself by withdrawing. I’ve had at least a nodding acquaintance with a dozen of them. Other characters also come from common types: the mean queen’s me-too friend, the quiet girl who gets things done, the good-hearted but trouble-prone class clown, the sweet boy who infuriates you, the teacher who sees more than she says.
These characters may germinate as types who will move the action along, but they become real people with unique characteristics as the writing progresses. Quite often they make you divert from the outline and go in another direction because these characters simply wouldn’t do what you planned. Cardboard figures don’t challenge the writer or appeal to the readers.
As a writer you live with your characters a long time. They must surprise, delight, annoy you. They must become as real as the people who walk in your door. But, for me, they aren’t those people.