Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 29, 2013

Creating Characters in the Dark

Last weekend I walked with a friend who laughed when she mentioned my facebook posts, saying something like, “You make writing sound so complicated.” I’m not sure what she said, but there wasn’t envy in her voice. I really don’t mean to suggest there’s a maze on my desk every day, even if I often feel a little crazy. Most of the writing I’ve done for the past decade has begun with a real person with a real history, so starting now from a mix of whim and obsession makes me feel as if I’m floundering in deep water. I remind myself that a long distance swimmer might have to swim a long time with no markers. But doesn’t she usually have a boat beside her, someone ready to pull her aboard in case of jellyfish, frigid water, sharks, or getting lost?

Looking for a direction, the state of mind I’ve called feeling stupid, isn’t entirely unfamiliar. It’s just not one I usually choose. I want to know what’s going on, but as a fiction writer, I pretty much have to wait for strangers to speak. Will they, and will they say anything worthwhile? I feel awash in doubt, but am trying to rename that, calling it a space where something new can happen. I need to find my own balance of drawing from life and sheer imagination, recollecting and letting memories go. I’ve been here, or somewhere like it, before.

Some fictional characters have origins in real people, often strangers, or those we’ve read or dreamed about. Something about the way someone bends to pick up a stone at the beach or turns her neck to see who’s behind her while in line for popcorn may become the seed of a story, and even carry the importance we feel when an owl appears under moonlight in a fairy tale, all omen-y. We may feel a softening in our belly or a pinch behind our knees, as if a ghost has entered the room. We might call it chance or coincidence, and may feel haunted, gifted, or bedeviled. Or simply relief. Here’s a place to begin, even if the process leaves behind the moment that set off the sparks.

We don’t need to analyze this too much. We probably don’t need to analyze anything too much. A novelist may be best off honoring a moment that whispers to us by writing it out and seeing where it leads. In fact maybe it’s that imbalance of knowing and not knowing, an awareness of life’s quiet connections and many missteps, that starts the story. Maybe the overheard sentence or semi-familiar gesture stirs a memory, so someone steps out of the shadows, though perhaps not too far. It seems good to work within a sort of dusk for a while, where characters may be  comfortable enough to confide in ways they might not at a dinner table.

Following these chance encounters takes a willingness to end up in the mind’s back alley. I ask myself a series of questions to develop characters which I’ve posed to students, but suspect it helps to have the questions spoken by an instructor with perhaps a little chicken-shaped timer at her elbow. Surprising answers may come from the unmystical format, the measured box of time that lets writers hurry past the inner-decider-of-what’s-stupid, which most of us have been taught to cultivate more than the hey-whatever-happens part of us. I’m talking neuroscience here, referring to the same principal as writing too fast or steadily for the discriminating part of our brains to catch up.

I ask about characters’ favorite dreams and worst nightmares, the contents of their handbags, knapsacks, or top bureau drawers. What was the most damaging thing their mother ever said to them? What was the happiest moment of their life? What color is their favorite shirt? Such questions can be useful, especially when limited time means we’re bound to use our first thoughts, which can be developed later. It’s not so much interrogation as hanging out with someone that deepens a friendship or characters. It’s important to step in and commit to bringing in some of what we know and some of what we didn’t know we knew. And also important to step back and listen up. Characters we so-call-create have some kind of free will, and if we respect it, we may be swept to places we’d never have thought to go if we’d just relied on our judgment. “Keep your pen moving,” I tell students, and tell myself. Sometimes we slam through words into something never seen before, perhaps a character that readers will feel that they’ve met before. Some readers may even recognize themselves.



  1. I love that your friend’s comment sent you in this particular direction, Jeannine. Also, I giggled a bit because writing IS difficult. Folks who are readers, but who don’t write themselves, always figure that it’s easy – that’s one of the reasons that picture book authors are so undervalued. “It’s short, and simple. Anyone can do that.” Try telling that to the people who actually DO that!

    But I digress. Thanks for another excellent, thoughtful post!

    • Thanks, dear Kelly. I don’t think my friend meant to suggest writing was easy, rather she was somewhere between fascinated and horrified. Of course I dwell a lot on the process, which I hope other writers can enjoy or learn from, but imagine that others might just feel some relief that they don’t have to navigate such paths so often. For me, writing isn’t simple or easy, but on the other hand, I’ve chosen it, so try not to sound too complainy. Just complainy enough? Good luck to you in the mazes!

  2. Your words always inspire me and remind me of what I love most about writing.

    • Lesa, That makes me feel good indeed. Here’s to more writing love.

  3. This is a feast, Jeannine. Just one of many delicacies: “working within a sort of dusk.” Thank you!

  4. ” In fact maybe it’s that imbalance of knowing and not knowing, an awareness of life’s quiet connections and many missteps, that starts the story.”

    Oh yes, I love that! It’s both the listening and the speaking out, isn’t it. Lovely post full of things to think about, Jeannine. I know I’ll be back to read it all again. Thanks!

    • I’ve been thinking a lot about what happens in those spaces between uncertainty and conviction, speech and silence (um, maybe not an exact space, but…) a place or origins, some kind of magic. It’s beautiful watching you move into another voice, knowing you won’t lose your lovely quieter one in the process.

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