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Creating Fictional Characters

Creating fictional characters is one of the most mysterious aspects of the enigmatic activity we call creative writing. Here I sit, the author of a novel, imagining beings who have never really lived. Often they are composites of many people I’ve known, fused with bits of my own experience or personality; but ultimately they become their own people, whose voices I hear.

With my new novel, Mama’s Child, I spent the first year drafting the manuscript entirely from the white mother, Elizabeth’s, point of view. (The plot concerns a longstanding conflict with her biracial daughter, Ruby.) But after I completed that first draft I began to hear an urgent voice: it was Ruby’s. “White women always take up all the space, getting their side of every story into print. Women of color don’t have the same kind of access. I want to tell my own story!” I know it sounds strange to say that I “heard” a voice, and in fact I did not literally have an auditory sensation, but the words ran through my mind, then into my fingers, and flowed onto the page. As I wrote Ruby’s chapters, alternating with Elizabeth’s, I understood that indeed she was right: the dramatic tension in the novel comes, at least partly, from reading two very different perspectives on the same events. Ultimately the entire last seventy-five pages are given over to Ruby’s first-person voice.

The characters in my books do take on their own personalities and reality to the extent that, when I finally finish my last revision and turn in the manuscript, I miss my people terribly. We’ve lived in intimacy (yes, I’m the sort of writer who wakes in the middle of the night thinking, “Ruby wouldn’t do that, she’d do this,” and jot a note). We’ve taken a journey together, and once it’s complete, saying Good-bye is like saying farewell to folks who’ve worked on a project or campaign together: we’ve shared a closeness, confidences, and an intensity. I have great affection for these people. It’s hard to close the curtain and exit the stage. Yet despite leaving, my characters live on forever in my imagination, and hopefully in the minds of my readers too.
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