Most readers, I suspect, assume that a story’s perceiving character will come from the writer’s own psyche, at least to some degree. Not that authors must commit murder to write from the perspective of a murderer, but to do so we must be able to get in touch with the part of ourselves that might, given the right circumstances, be capable of such an act.
What about the side characters, though, the ones the writer doesn’t climb inside of? If characters are only observed, not inhabited on the page, it’s easier to assume that they are complete creations, having little to do with the writer’s reality.
It is interesting, though, after drawing a central character out of my own substance, how much of me there is left over to scatter among others in the story.
Buddy in Little Dog, Lost carries the same longing for connection I talked about last week in Angie, the central character in Blue-Eyed Wolf. So does the boy who has to give Buddy up. So does Mark, who needs a dog. So does Charles Larue, the old man living alone in a mansion at the center of the town of Erthly. Every one of them brings to life some longing of my own.
And there are other points of connection with side characters. In Blue-Eyed Wolf, Maia, Angie’s adult friend, is the wife of her Episcopal priest. Where does Maia come from? It just so happens that for twenty-eight years I was married to an Episcopal priest, and while Maia certainly isn’t me—she’s much more up front than I ever dared be, for one thing—creating her as a character allowed me to dip into a deep well of feelings about the role I lived for so long. It was one in which I had, of necessity, to remain mostly silent, so finding an opportunity to speak twenty-five years after leaving that life behind gives me great energy and thus gives the character energy, too.
Long after I had begun writing Blue-Eyed Wolf, I was unsure about where I was going with it. The story I carried in my mind, in fact, had no middle, no action for Angie to take. Still, I kept inching forward, trusting that I would find what I needed, and eventually I did. I decided that, while attending the anti-war rally at the Pentagon with Maia, Angie would meet a draft resister, and that she would become involved in helping him escape to Canada. Great solution!
The problem was that I had a character, but no substance. For a long time, the young man in question was a blank. And then one day I remembered Charlie, a fellow I once knew, who, when I knew him in the early 60’s, was struggling to get his draft board to accept his status as a conscientious objector. Just thinking about Charlie dropped my character into my lap. Charlie was a philosophy major, an early hippie, a sweet and gentle man. And while I can’t pretend to write about someone I knew slightly fifty years ago, Charlie became, as Ruby’s ears did, the springboard for my character.
So will this character come entirely from outside me? No. He will believe what I believe about the military and about war. Meditation will be important to him, something that is important in my life. And when he comes back with Angie to Minnesota, he will share some of my own fascination of and caution in the wilderness. Once more scraps of the writer will enliven a character, even a side character, one I won’t inhabit.
If human nature weren’t so complex, so varied, fiction would be dull. It’s because we are all endless resources for discovery that characters can be made to seem to live.