Writers have intense and intimate connections with our characters. For many of us, the characters in our books are every bit as real as the flesh-and-blood people we interact with on a daily basis. We know more about them than we know about our spouses, our siblings, our friends. We think about them even when we’re not actually writing. Our characters talk to us when we’re taking a shower, walking in a park, shopping for groceries, and trying to sleep. They ride along with us when we’re commuting to work. They offer advice on cooking or fashion or how to handle our kids––whether or not we asked for it. They latch onto us and won’t let go. They become our constant companions (and yes, we even have a certain fondness for the bad guys). Being a writer gives us license to have imaginary friends, so if you notice us talking to ourselves, we’re not nuts. We’re simply having a conversation with our BFFs or testing out a bit of dialogue.
People often ask me where my characters come from. Occasionally, a reader insists he or she is someone I’ve written about in one of my books. I refer you folks to the disclaimer at the beginning of each novel that says something to the effect of: “This is a work of fiction. Except in the case of historic fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
That doesn’t mean we writers won’t appropriate a particular tidbit we find intriguing, such as your $3,000 custom-made cowboy boots, or that port-wine birthmark in the shape of New Jersey on your thigh, or your habit of clapping your hands three times and circling widdershins before entering your mother-in-law’s house. Warning: Writers are thieves, so don’t do or tell us anything really cool unless you’re okay with it appearing in print. But no, we don’t usually reproduce the ordinary people we know in our novels––unless we’re trying to reap vengeance, but that’s another story.
Fictional characters want to tell their tales and make their marks in the literary world. Sometimes I give a character a bit part and she pushes her way into a starring role. Writers tend to fall in love with our characters. We don’t want to say goodbye, so we write a series. Agatha Christie’s Detective Hercule Poirot starred in thirty-three novels, fifty-nine short stories, and one full-length play. Naturally, the protagonist appears in every book in the series, but often subordinate or even minor characters turn up again and again, especially if the stories occur in a particular place, such as Louise Penny’s fictional town Three Pines.
In my Lizzie Crane mystery series, which is set in the mid-1920s, I invite a few historical figures to play cameos. This gives a period feeling to the stories, adds a splash of color, and in some cases furthers the plot. However, these real-life people are presented in a fictitious manner. The artist Edward Hopper comes to a party in the third book in my series (The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors, scheduled for release in August 2023). In the fourth novel (Running in the Shadows), Charles Lindbergh performs a daredevil aerial show. In the books, these famous folks do things they really did––yes, Lindbergh was a barnstorming stunt pilot before he flew across the Atlantic and into history books. But, of course, these famous folks never actually met my characters (at least, not to my knowledge).
Characters drive stories, they’re not just along for the ride. If we don’t connect with the characters in a novel, we probably won’t read more than a couple chapters. If we really, really like them, we’ll follow them wherever they go. They take us to places and time periods we might never know about otherwise. They present us with ideas and situations we might never have considered before. They teach us about courage, compassion, patience, strength, humility, tragedy, and triumph. They help us understand ourselves and the people we know better. By sharing their journeys with us, characters in books reveal to us the vastness of the human experience with all its complexity, richness, and magic.
Skye Alexander is the author of nearly 50 fiction and nonfiction books. Her stories have been published in anthologies internationally and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. The second novel in her Lizzie Crane mystery series What the Walls Know is scheduled for release in August 2022, and she’s currently working on the fifth one. Visit her website www.skyealexander.com.