Do you ever watch your characters come to life?

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SO THIS IS WHAT WRITING is all about, or so I’m told by those who have mastered the craft far better than I have. You begin with a character or maybe a whole stable of them.

As Gore Vidal said: “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps twenty players … I have ten or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.”

He may be right.

He certainly sold a lot of books.

His name comes up quite often when great American writers are discussed.

And it’s heresy, I know, to disagree with him.

But I believe that if a writer only has a repertory company of ten or twenty characters, then those same ten or twenty characters will keep writing the same story over and over again.

For a writer, life itself is central casting.

We should be picking up new characters as we go along. We generally find them when we least expect them, and when they worm their way into our brains, we can’t let go of them until they tell their story.

And when the story is told, they leave.

Some return from time to time.

But most don’t.

However, as Leslie Gordon Barnard wrote in Writer’s Digest, “Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they re not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.”

I have always been a collector of people, even those I never meet.

For years, I have sat in airports – and I’m sure many of you have as well – watching the parade of people as they pass by.

I don’t know them.

But I assign them roles in life.

The blonde is looking for love.

She won’t have to look long.

The brunette has thrown love away.

More than once.

One has been jilted.

One has been bitter.

One carries a Smith & Wesson in her purse.

But which one?

Figure it out.

And that’s where the story begins, or maybe where it ends.

Or I sit in a roadside café in any town I’m driving through, and characters come to life over a plate of fried eggs, seared bacon, sliced potatoes, and biscuits that might have a real future as hockey pucks.

The young man at the counter is nervous and keeps looking over his shoulder.

The old man behind a newspaper is the reason.

One is on the run.

One has ended his run.

And one carries a Smith & Wesson in the belt beneath his jacket.

But which one?

Figure it out, and you’ll have chapter one in the books by the time you finish your second cup of coffee.

There are no wooden figures in life. There are no stick figures, not if you go to places you don’t usually go, wander streets that may not be on the proper side of town, attend a church where you are probably out of place, or spend the night in a walkup hotel.

You never have to go to your room.

Just sit in the lobby a while and listen.

People are talking.

People love to talk.

Keep quiet, and they’ll never know you’re around.

I’ve always gotten far better stories by eavesdropping than asking questions.

By midnight, you’ll know who’s jilted, who’s bitter, who’s on the run, and who has the Smith & Wesson in her purse – why she plans to use it, who the guest of honor will be, how many will attend the funeral, who is coming to cry, who is coming to make sure the sonuvabitch is dead, and why they’ll never find a jury in fourteen counties to convict her.

The town may be big or small.

It doesn’t matter.

It never matters.

But if you come back after an all nighter on the streets and don’t have a novel begging to be written, then you’ve been wasting your time on the wrong streets.

 

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  • Don Newbury

    So, so true. So much of what is written about doesn’t matter, but wonderful arrangement of words describing moments, settings and situations–large and small–seem to matter.

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