Characterologically Speaking

Fiction is the art of creating selves. We may draw from life, using people we know as models. We may build a character from the raw material of personal experience, creating more or less autobiographical children through whom we can live more dangerously and authentically than seems…advisable in the world where we need to hold down a day job. We may even find ourselves tempted to borrow a character who has outlived his or her copyright or who, like Scheherezade or Red Riding Hood, has always belonged to all of us.

More often than not, and consciously or not, a character derives from a recombination of elements drawn from multiple sources. My own characters tend to begin their journeys as imperfect imitations of people I have known. I may base a physical description on a friend or acquaintance or borrow an outlook, a behavioral quirk, a personality trait or some part of the context in which I know the person, then splice new sequences onto that original snippet of DNA. Exaggeration is part of the process. The character never remains recognizable for long. I admire good biography but I have never aspired to write it. It’s a good practice, when you run a characterological chop shop, to file the serial numbers off the spare parts that go into a new creation.headline2

But character and situation are, to my mind, inseparable. I can’t make heads or tails of the debate over whether fiction ought to be character- or plot-driven. Plots are maps, and of course maps don’t drive anything. So I think the real question is whether, or to what extent, the writer ought to direct the action of a story or follow the lead of one or more of the characters in it. Tight control over the events of a story is important to some writers, while others bring a more laissez faire approach to the craft. I tend to plot as I go, attempting to predict the behavior of my characters from one chapter to the next. Occasionally they surprise me and do what I think they’ll do, but my powers of persuasion are at their best when I work a kind of reverse psychology on them. “Don’t do that!” I warn them, and so they do.

Because bad guidance makes good fiction.

So yes, characters drive my stories. And yes, I provide maps, gps coordinates, road signs and the kind of advice you might expect from an Associate Manager at the drive-up window of a fast food joint. You know the one I mean. She affects an ironic grin and says, in an accent that doesn’t match up with her features, “I just work here,” and hands you the wrong change. Because, as nearly as I can tell, that’s the way life goes. Plans unravel, lanes merge, the blue line that looked like a county highway turns out to be the border between two new republics with names you can’t pronounce, and suddenly, you’re playing laser tag in a war zone.


When, for example, Jeannie Ivory explained how she conjured a lost boy from the storm sewer, I didn’t know yet that she was crazy. I certainly didn’t know the couple two doors down from her house were going to adopt that lost boy and bring him up to fear God and run the sound booth at First Assembly of God. Instead, like Jeannie, I watched the renovation of that house and wondered what kind of people might have bought it. It turned out they were old friends of the family. And I don’t mean Jeannie’s family, I mean mine. Until the story redefined them and they, in turn, revamped the needs of the story.

Surely you’ve had days like that, when someone you think you know turns out, instead, to be who they are? Not better, not worse, just themselves?


  1. Jeannie crazy? Jeannie crazy? Unstable maybe but I can see why. Crazy – no. I thought so for a while but to me the end proved she knew exactly what she was talking about.

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