Characters and Making Them Real

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers

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All fiction revolves around characters, such as Mr. Peggotty in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Characters must engage us emotionally, or they become like wallpaper, flattened figures we don’t really care about. Alternately, they can appear cartoonish, as in the illustration above. Have you heard the phrase “well drawn” used about certain characters? That’s the writer’s job–the make a “well drawn” character, to render a life on the page.

One danger with historical fiction is that the writer may become so immersed in the research that he or she forgets that revealing character through dialogue, description, and situation is a more important objective that digging out one more factoid. Just to reinforce that point, let’s see what Eudora Welty has to say about character.

This excerpt comes from ONE WRITER’S BEGINNINGS, paperback edition, page 108. My copy of this book is falling apart, and that’s because I consult it all the time. Miss Welty says the following:

What discoveries I’ve made in the course of writing stories all begin with the particular, never the general.

That’s almost the opposite of what I think goes on in historical fiction. In historical fiction, we’re almost always starting with the general. For instance, “This novel is about the draft riots in New York,” or “This novel is about the time some French astronomers went over to Mexico to study the Transit of Venus.” The danger, when starting from a big concept, is that the characters become illustrative examples of the larger “point” we’re trying to make. Here’s what Welty says about the characters who enlivened her stories:

The characters who go to make up my stories and novels are not portraits. Characters I invent along with the story that carries them. Attached to them are what I’ve borrowed, perhaps unconsciously, bit by bit, of persons I have seen or noticed or remembered in the flesh—a cast of countenance here, a manner of walking there, that jump to the visualizing mind when a story is underway. (Elizabeth Bowen said, “Physical detail cannot be invented.” It can only be chosen.) I don’t write by invasion into the life of a real person: my own sense of privacy is too strong for that; and I also know instinctively that living people to whom you are close—those who know you in ways too deep, too overflowing, ever to be plumbed outside of love—do not yield to, could never fit into the demands of a story. On the other hand, what I do make my stories out of is the whole of my life, to the relationships that formed and changed it, that I have given most of myself to, and so learned my way toward a dramatic counterpart. Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.
It was never my intention—it never was—to invent a character who should speak for them, the author, in person. A character is in a story to fill a role there, and the character’s life along with its expression of life is defined by that surrounding—indeed is created by his own story.

Let Characters Make Choices

The danger in historical fiction–the big challenge for writers who immerse themselves in the past–is to let the lives of the characters evolve as the character evolves. Writers must figure out a way to give their characters–as Thomas Aquinas said–“free will.”

Well, why wouldn’t my character have free will, you might ask? It’s darned hard to let a character have free will when you know “how it all turns out.” When we know “what really happened,” we know too much. Writing about real life events, we may feel constrained by the truth. A stern historian will come whack us on the wrist with his pointer, and then we will be force to write a hundred times on the blackboard, “I’m sorry. I got it wrong.”

Fear of historical inaccuracy inhibits the liberties we might wish to take. We close ourselves off to discovery. We constrain our characters and do not let them live and breathe and veer off the planned course. To my way of thinking, the big task in historical fiction is to erase what we know of the future and to let characters determine their own destinys, so that readers can enjoy going along for the ride. And that’s what I’m doing with my current novel, THE VERMILLION SEA, set in 1769. I’m trying to find out what happened to my protagonist and then forget what I know, so I can send him on his way, from Paris to Baja California, without knowing how his life turned out.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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