Liars Club

Torn From The Headlines!

by Simmons on October 11, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life,The Writing Process

Burning Question: How do you create your characters?

You can’t pick up a best selling book anymore without feeling like you’re reading a newspaper.  So many of the plots and characters sound familiar, you know?  Because they are.   Often, what starts as an interesting mental exercise – find an event or character in the news, then reimagine them in a story – (an assignment once given to me  by the brilliant Swarthmore professor and inveterate Liar Gregory Frost) — can end up being the start of a beautiful novel.

Sound like cheating?  It isn’t.  Characters we encounter on the news only give us a taste of who they are.  The whole story, frequently, is never to be told, never to be known.  But we are inherently intrigued by those characters and their situations and long for knowledge, plot, closure to wind around them.

For years I’ve been carrying a clipping about a man who was found dead in the woods with an old  framed photograph of a baby on a beach tucked into his breast pocket.  I keep that clipping because that man instantly became a character to me.  He loved to walk and didn’t own a car.  He moved from place to place because he was an orphan, and all he had left of his past was one photo.  Would he find his birth family?  Would they find him?  Or had he pitched a tent right across the campyard from them one day and never known?

As a writer, everything you encounter can be of use in building a character.  Your neighbor’s raspy voice + your nephew’s social anxiety.   Your boss’s flamboyant clothing + your daughter’s tendency to blush.  But don’t discount the characters you read about every day.  The Muslim student who bullied his gay roommate.  The forceful mother whose drunken daughter disappeared in Aruba.

Characters are all around you.

Kelly Simmons is the author of Standing Still (Simon & Schuster) and coming in February, The Bird House. Learn more at www.bykellysimmons.com Kelly’s post is part of an ongoing series in which Liars each chime in on a burning question about publishing.

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