Drawing Characters From Real Life

This article, from Barbara Samuel, originally appeared on the Writer Unboxed site on 5/27/09.

One of the best sources of fresh, original, authentic character development comes from the seas of real life.

As a young journalism student, one of my favorite tasks was to be assigned a feature on a professor or a student with an intriguing history or pursuit. I loved interviewing them, taking notes on whatever details seemed most intriguing.  What did they have on their desks?  What did that little repetitive circle of the arm have to say about them?  What details set this person apart from all others, what made her unique?  I wasn’t particularly interested in making anyone uncomfortable or uncovering some awful thing. I wanted to know who they were and what story they would tell me.

I learned that nearly everyone has a story they want to tell, some story that defines who they are, some moment they carry around day after day, year after year.  Even the worst criminals have some soft moment, a time before they became hardened to the pain of others.  Even the most saintly of church ladies have some moment of shame they cannot shake.

It’s fascinating.  

I didn’t spend long in the world of journalism, but my habit of collecting stories, gestures, clothing, histories, has continued apace.  My partner learned early that if I am exhausted, one way to perk me up is to take me into a new environment where there might be stories for me to harvest.  The old man at the drugstore in Albuquerque, the Frenchman with thickly furred, burly arms who drove us (much too fast!) around Normandy and took me to task for drinking coffee with my meal.  My partner calls my methods interrogation, but I prefer to think of myself as a student of human behavior.

The point is, all of the material goes into a giant closet in my imagination, a heady cache of fresh, unique details harvested right out of everyday life, ready for the telling later.  Not all at once, of course.  Characters are assembled like weavings, voice from here, a habit from there, gestures from somewhere else.  I might use the Frenchman’s arms and smoking and bluster to fashion a father in a small Colorado town.  I have sometimes lifted a person nearly whole cloth from life because it’s irresistible–the dashingly handsome Iranian who ran the local quick shop in my old neighborhood in Pueblo showed up in the Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue (a fact that pleased him mightily!).

More often, it’s a weaving of various things plucked out of that closet full of details.  I remember one afternoon listening to my late mother-in-law, who was grieving her mother, telling the story of her childhood and how she met her husband.  She was the daughter of a rich farmer in Jackson, Mississippi in the thirties. Her husband was an ambitious and charming day worker seeking work in the fields.  He came to the door for water, and she was smitten from that day forward.  That nugget of story made its way into the Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue, as the backstory of an older African American woman, Roberta, who is grieving her husband.  Roberta was the name of my friend Sharon’s mother, who could pray the world blue, and I used some of her gestures and kindnesses for the character of Roberta.  There was also a hefty helping of my grandmother in the character,  a woman of the same generation, and then my own embroidery from who-knows-where. Voila! A character was born.

Read the rest of the article on Writer Unboxed.