Tuesday, September 13, 2011

243,000 Characters in Search of an Author

I've been approached often over the past couple of years by young writers asking me where I get the initial ideas for my characters. For example, last week I was in my local Best Buy, and the young man who was doing a great job helping me pick out a video camera got excited when he found out I'm an author. He wants to be a writer. He asked me lots of questions about writing, publishing and marketing, but by far he was most interested in how I conceive the characters who populate my stories.

"Do you just use your imagination completely--just totally make them up in your head?" he asked me. "Every time I do that, my characters feel so artificial and unreal."

After delivering the boilerplate authorial caveats that anything I said in reply to his question is no gold standard but only the way I personally go about constructing some of my characters, and that he pursue the process in whatever way he feels most comfortable, I answered his question by waving an arm around the crowded store. I told him the raw material to start building his characters was all around him at that very moment. All he had to do was pay attention.
Earlier today I was sitting near my departure gate during a layover in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. A quick hop onto Wikipedia informed me it's the busiest airport in the world, with an average of 243,000 passengers passing through it daily. That huge number doesn't even include the thousands of people who work there. Briefly throwing my eyes around, 20 feet away from me I saw an attractive woman in her mid-40's wearing elegant, expensive designer business attire and holding a smartphone to her ear. She sounded like she was highly agitated, yelling and cursing into her phone. Her voice was loud enough that she obviously didn't care who heard her. But belying that seeming agitation, she was seated calmly, twirling her shoulder-length auburn hair with a long, perfectly manicured finger. Her skin wasn't flushed at all, her green eyes were wide and luminous, and there was even a small, crooked grin on her glossy lips while she berated the unfortunate party on the other end of her call. Was it a business call? Was she fighting with a lover, or one of her kids, or her parent? Was she actually having a phone conversation at all, or was it really a charade to see what attention she could lure as she whiled away some idle time waiting for her flight?

One character kernel sown, 242,999 to go in just one day at the airport.

I do the bulk of my writing at my favorite local Starbucks. It's a busy place. Many of my characters had their initial germination from some person or another I saw passing through or by that coffee shop. Maybe it was an accent that first drew my attention, or an outfit, a hairstyle, a walking stick, perhaps a laugh or quirky mannerism. In the end it doesn't really matter what first caught my eye or ear. The world is full of interesting people, and they're all around you, all the time. A fleeting encounter with almost any one of them, plus a dash of extrapolation and a pinch of imagination, are the basic ingredients in a surefire recipe for birthing characters both memorable and realistic. After that, it's up to you to get inside the skin, mind, heart and soul of the character you've just created, breathe him full of life, and let him loose to reap and sow his just due.

"It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, 
all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to 
keep up long enough to put down what he says and does." 
~~ William Faulkner~~

1 comment:

  1. They need faults, too, either millions of them or one big one that they can barely get around. What makes a fine character is that he or she keeps doing that one thing that gets them into trouble. Until I trap them in a fault, my characters are flat and dull, or worse yet, noble and nauseating do-gooders. The minute I write their blind spot, I have an interesting character on my hands.