Getting to Know Them: How to Birth a Character

Post Date: August 3rd, 2010

“He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up their privacy. And they refused–without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth. Then, they seemed to be complaining, they would give him all he wished for and much more than he was now willing to imagine.”

–James Baldwin, Another Country

I’m about to submit a short story that in draft eight finally tells some truth.

When I first began, I didn’t know what Andy Swindon’s deal was. My main character moved like those horrible wind-up toys in the Pristiq commercial for antidepressants. Draft one Andy, robotic and distant, awaited the day when I’d figure out what nerve to press.

I found that nerve in his mother: her torturous methods of upbringing and her chastising Andy for being too affectionate as a boy. I found that nerve in his karaoke days with his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife–the woman whose opinion he values above his own. Back story exposed the network of feeling and began to melt his plastic surface. Desire put the gleam in his eye.

I also found it in his diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome. Never in the story do I label him, because it’s likely that no one–parent, teacher, wife–ever had a name for Andy’s ways and means. He’s made it through life quite successfully sans diagnosis.

Andy’s character is also not his syndrome, just as that label doesn’t suit a real human, though it may inform most every move and thought. Maybe I’ll write a story someday where a diagnosis is stated outright. But here, his syndrome manifests the same way the heaviest weight of the iceberg creaks beneath the surface, a shadow with hints darkening the depths.

None of this about Andy I knew when I started. First I had to hear questions from colleagues who read the early drafts and didn’t get Andy’s deal. Second, I kept those questions right in front of me as I drove and revised and did dishes and revised and showered and revised. That’s the best kind of multi-tasking–a repetitive task that frees up one’s mind to strategize. Third, I forced myself to print out a new draft and read it very carefully, at least three different times. Then months later, draft 8 evolved. And I may not be quite done yet; we’ll see how these hard-copy edits go.

Yet I am very proud of Andy, v8. My little Frankenboy, my Pinocchio, he’s alive, he’s alive!

James Baldwin’s quotation describes the agony of a writer, Vivaldo, trying to birth his novel. The characters are Vivaldo’s children. He can’t, much as he wants, place them in foster care. They will cling to him till he finds a way to tell their truth. This process will take at a minimum months but better yet, years.

It’s a marathon, and in this way, a bit like parenting.


  1. bobmust says:

    I just read an (old) interview with Andre Dubus, in which he said his stories improved when he began to write slowly enough to get to know his characters. Sounds as though you’re doing a form of that.
    Bonne chance!