The characters in my books are like real people to me. Writing about them is akin to meeting new friends and telling their stories. Some characters roll into my life, all vivid and full of color. They’re easy to recognize and might have a lot to say for themselves. Others might shuffle around in the background for a while, not really noticeable until I coax them out to get to know them better.
I immediately felt that I knew Arthur, the 69-year-old hero of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. But it was in the same way I might know a neighbor who lives a few doors away or a relative I haven’t seen for a while. He took time to trust me to tell his story. However, when he did, we had a lively, enjoyable journey together. I felt that I was holding his hand, helping him to take his first few steps, to live his life without his wife in it.
Whether Arthur would admit it or not, his interfering neighbor, Bernadette, helped to lure him out into the open. A few chapters into my writing of the book, Arthur was still a little two-dimensional. That was, until Bernadette started to push sausage rolls through his letterbox. The line that really brought Arthur to life for me, in response to Bernadette’s questioning, was: “Is this Mastermind? I don’t remember applying.” And, with those words, his defensive, slightly bewildered persona was born.
With other characters it can be something else that suddenly jolts them, like Frankenstein’s monster, to life. I needed a flamboyant figure to deal with raising tigers on a country estate, and so Lord Graystock said hello to me. His love of cobalt blue comes from a favorite pair of trousers I once owned. A tortoise that escapes in Arthur’s neighbor’s garden is based on a carved tortoise panel I made in woodworking in school, and is also a nice metaphor for Arthur coming out of his shell.
I love the diversity and randomness of ordinary people’s lives, and I like to observe and store their stories in my mind. I recently met a man on a flight to LA who left paper bags around his apartment because his cat liked to put them on its head and walk around. (He showed me a video on his phone.) There was a bookseller in Minneapolis who fostered dogs and campaigned against puppy farming. Another person I met had worked with Jeff Bridges on a film, and a nurse friend of mine was excited about attending a seminar about diseases. Everyday people provide such a rich mine of information to explore and delve into.
I never base my characters on one person I’ve met, but sometimes their characteristics or stories gel to create a new individual. I never quite know what’s going to come out! I find human nature endlessly fascinating, and I hope that’s something that helps to give my characters their warmth, realness…and charm.
What books do you love for the characters? Let us know in the comments below!