Creating Characters Over Thai Chicken Salad

Questions from iStockToday was a “Ready, Set, Go” day. You know the kind. You jump out of bed and you start to run. As the day progresses, you run faster and farther, until by day’s end, you’re too tired to do anything except fall back into that same bed you jumped out of hours before.

Tonight even the book I’m reading  about becoming invisible (and no, not the Harry Potter invisibility cloak kind of invisible) won’t keep me awake past ten. I’ll have to stay visible awhile longer for lack of information, or rather my character will, because, of course, the book is research.

A novelist’s day is never done until she closes her eyes. And then she dreams.

I did take a lunch break. Between appointments I wandered over to Panera Bread, chose the salad with the least number of calories, and sat in a corner to watch plainly visible people.

You can learn a lot at Panera. People are not shy about what they say in public. Writers love to eavesdrop, and we love to stare. We also love to spin stories from other people’s utterances, or odd things they do, or the sadness in their eyes. In fact if you’re trying to hide out, don’t sit near a writer, because we’ll be paying attention. My friend Diane Chamberlain frequently blogs or comments on Facebook about things she sees at Starbucks, where she writes portions of her novels.  In fact, a recent novel began with something she saw there and reimagined.

I’m often asked where my characters come from. Are they people I know?  Are they real people thinly disguised?

The truth is, I don’t know where my characters come from, but I can tell you where they don’t. They aren’t real, and they aren’t people I know. That’s called non-fiction, memoir, biography, and that’s not what I do. Like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who says “I see dead people,” novelists also see ghosts, but “before life” ghosts, not “after life.” Ours are wisps who begin to form as we imagine what they do, where they were born, what they worry about. Little by little they begin to take on flesh, their hearts begin to beat, they walk and eventually, they speak to us.

Of course, one of them “might” be wearing the yellow hat with the sunglasses perched on top of it that a man at the next table had on today. Or one of them might have olive skin, a hawk’s nose and a neatly trimmed gray beard, as did another. A woman might talk in a high-pitched voice and laugh nervously after every other sentence. Another might complain about everything on her plate, then tuck into it like a starving lumberjack.

But are they real? Of course not. Those are traits, descriptions, details that make our characters come alive. I’ll never know why the man chose that yellow hat, or why the woman complains about her food.

But I’ll know why my own characters do.

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