Somebody asked me recently how I write a novel. It’s not something I think about a lot these days because I write every day. It doesn’t matter if I’m working on a novel, a short story, or a blog post, I write. Writers write. An old adage, but one that is very true.
The conversation went kind of like this:
I answered the question by saying, “I Show up.”
“No, I mean do you start with an idea? Do you outline? Do you know the end before you start?”
“I usually start with a character,” I answered.
And I really hadn’t thought about that, either, but it’s also true. I usually have a face, a soul, in my mind, and they are aching to have their story told. I just follow after them…
“Characters are hard. I mean, do you write about somebody you know?” the person asked.
“I write about a lot of somebodys. My characters are composites. People I’ve met, family members, people I’ve seen crossing the street or stranger’s talking on their cell phone at the grocery store (which is annoying unless you hear a line like: “Don’t forget to get food for the lizard.)”
“So you decide if their eyes are blue, if they have blonde hair?”
“Or no hair at all.”
“Thanks, but that’s Norm’s department.”
“But you know all of this before you start?”
“Hum…No. I usually look in their wallet first.”
“You’re character’s wallet?”
And that’s absolutely true. I look in my character’s wallet. Beyond the physical creation of Joe Friday Super Detective, I want to know about the things my characters carry and why. I’ve always thought one of the great aspects of writing is that I get to be the director, the set designer, the makeup artist, etc. While writing is a community effort, for the most part it is not a collaborative effort. So when I create a character, I take a few pages from the acting manual, called “The Method” (think: James Dean, Brando, DeNiro). I borrow from Stanislavski, Stella Adler, and the rest of the gang at the Actor’s Studio. I want my characters to be real, to experience “sense memory”, to have a past, present, and future. I want to know their pain, their sorrow, and their joy. That doesn’t necessarily mean I give the reader all of this information. But I know it. And what we carry in our wallets tells us a lot about a person. So, I start there when I’m trying to get inside a character’s head and heart. Beyond the plastic credit and debit cards, there’s usually something of interest in a wallet, something personal, something hidden away from view, but always present on the character’s body. Aren’t these the kind of things we need to know create believable characters? The possibilities are endless:
· An emergency phone number, but that person has long since died.
· A cigarette butt.
· No pictures
· A picture of a dog and nothing else.
· A St. Christopher’s medal, even though the character is an avowed atheist.
· A matchbook.
· A toothpick.
· A fortune cookie fortune with a phone number on it.
· (And no—just in case you’re wondering—these items aren’t in my wallet)…
These talismans give me more than back story, they give me emotion. And if I have that emotion clear in my mind, I can give it to the reader…And that’s the best part of the exercise—clarity of a character’s emotion given to the reader.
So, the next time you’re struggling to create a character, stop for a second and ask: “What’s in your wallet?”
What you find may surprise you.
LARRY D. SWEAZY