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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Going Along for the Ride
Characters drive our stories forward
by Phyllis Edgerly Ring


Characters are the single most important factor in fiction. Readers turn the pages because of what is happening, certainly, but itís who itís happening to that captivates us.

Our own life experience will undoubtedly shape and affect our fiction -- and our characters. But what distinguishes fiction from memoir or autobiography is that it arises from our synthesis of what we take in, rather than just the facts themselves.

Even when we pattern characters after people we know, they canít help but become fictionalized. This was illustrated for me by a story I heard told by an author who was anxious about a character she created for a novel. The character was based on a woman friend, and the author had painted that character in a less-than-favorable light.

The friend read the book, and as the two were visiting one day, the friend brought up the character in question. As the author began to sweat, her friend proceeded to tell her that, although she liked the book, sheíd had a struggle with that particular character. She felt the author had credited the character with far more good qualities than the character actually deserved, making her less believable! Not only had she never recognized herself in the character, she demonstrated how none of us sees ourselves as others do.

Writing fiction begins with characters who become real enough and important enough that we canít stop thinking about them. Rather than "making up" the story, the writer often finds the characters leading the way through it.

In reality, drafting a story can be as fun as reading one. Iím not talking about revising, a necessary later step that polishes a story as brightly as possible. Iím talking about the creative act of getting the story down because itís coming to you -- often in ways that might surprise the writer. Characters come into your mind and won't leave. Itís as though you want to follow them around, and then you begin to know things about them or about what has happened or is going to happen to them. This can be catalyzed by incidents that you experience or witness in everyday life, or can even be revealed in a dream. Whatever it is, it will, like the characters, have a power that stays in your mind.

In order for characters to play their part in bringing out the story, itís helpful to know certain things about them:

  • Whatís so important to them that they would kill, or die, or somehow make a personal sacrifice for it?
  • What makes them feel joyful or happy?
  • What makes them feel despair?
  • Whatís their most persistent flaw or challenge that almost everyone else can see but they canít?
  • What do they sound like, look like, move like, even smell like? (I sometimes pretend theyíre sitting silently in the room with me and write down everything I think and feel about them.)
  • What truth(s) keeps them going, and what lie holds them back?
  • What are some of their most treasured memories, and at least one thing they try not to think about at all?

Perhaps the most important quality can be their ability to surprise you. At their best, characters arenít little lives that writers corral and direct through some kind of literary maze. Theyíre messengers that tell us -- and our readers -- things weíve never known before, or at least, not in the same way.


Mother of two Phyllis Edgerly Ring is a parenting columnist for several magazines and an instructor with the Long Ridge Writers Group. Her articles have appeared this year in American Profile, Christian Science Monitor, Liguorian, Mamm, and Pregnancy magazines. She invites parents to contribute thoughts for a book she is writing about gender equality in the family. For more information visit www.phyllisring.com.


 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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