How much do you know about your characters when you sit down to begin a draft? Do you draft out biographies for them? Or do their histories, quirks and preoccupations become clearer to you as you write?
—Bonnie West, St. Paul, Minnesota
I think you know part of the answer to this question, Bonnie, as I handed out those infernal A-Z exercises in the Loft class you were in—that whole list of questions I sometimes ask my characters about many random things. But such an exercise is never my starting point (and, yes, I know how tedious it can be!). In the case of a character like John Given in Suite Harmonic, he was a real person and I knew his voice and his interests from his letters and, to some extent, from family lore. With most characters, I just have a sense of them from whatever impulse has drawn me to the story idea, and that basic awareness is fleshed out as the story grows and as its language starts to reveal the character.
A bit of an aside here. Perhaps the most uncanny experience I ever had concerning a character was with Suelinda Elly, the main character in “A Carnival of Animals” in In the Land of the Dinosaur. I wrote her story and thought I’d done pretty well in capturing her teen-aged self absorption and her sense of herself as a girl who was very attractive to men. The story was done, and I’d moved on. Then one day I was waiting at the swimming pool for one of my children, and Suelinda walked into the lobby. She was exactly the blonde person I’d been looking at in my head while I wrote the story, and her manner and voice were exactly Suelinda’s. It was really quite an experience. It was also one that confirmed my sense that if characters feel true when we write them, any of them really should be able to walk right off the page. (And, of course, even though it’s not my preferred explanation, I don’t discount the possibility I may have seen the actual girl somewhere before I wrote the story and logged her silently into my brain.)
There are also times when I’ve written a story and still think I never quite got a character, generally one who has a minor but still important role. In that case, I feel I need help and I do trot out an exercise like the one you knew, or just do some general brainstorming to try to get into that character more deeply so I can tweak the parts of the story that lack clarity. In other cases, I’ve felt stuck in a story, and an exercise to try to generate back story often gives me a key detail to work with. I feel particularly lucky if it’s a bit of dialogue. But there’s invariably something.
But as I think more about this question, I realize I want to add some specific examples of characters whom I felt I needed to revisit and learn more about when I was writing or re-writing them. In both these cases, the characters aren’t minor ones, unlike some characters who send me off hunting for further story. What they are, though, is non-point-of-view characters and, so by definition, they are characters who’re harder to comprehend. It’s the difference between the way we understand ourselves because we’re face to face with our own ongoing thought processes as opposed to the way we scramble to understand other people from what they say and do and what we hear about them.
The two characters I’m thinking of are Reeve in Time Stamp and Julian in The Second Magician’s Tale. Both are characters whose novels revolve around them in a profound way. But they’re both also characters who’re somewhat unknown to the reader because it’s only possible to guess at their thought processes. At times, in writing them, I felt they were too obscure even to me, almost opaque. The result was that I gave myself writing assignments to try to learn more about them. In fact, I just hunted for an exercise I did for Reeve and discovered it’s on an external drive that died earlier this year. I would love to be able to read those bits now, but I do have a sense of them. I think I found Reeve in the kitchen of her Washington home and had a sense of her presence there, of the way her emotions bubbled in different directions, perhaps in response to the question of what item she would have wanted from her own mother’s kitchen.
With Julian, I think I wanted more details of his life as a magician and perhaps a deeper understanding of his relationship to Nell, just as I wanted more sense of Reeve’s feelings about Will. Yet in both cases, there was only so far I could go without looking for easy answers for the deepest questions that are a mystery at the heart of their stories. At that point, I knew to back off, leaving something for me to ponder, and the reader, too.