I once was asked how a writer builds a character. The word “build” threw me. I had never considered my characters to be constructed. It’s a great image. Boards and nails, a mad inventor charging the latest invention with strange energies. The truth is, most of my characters have very little to do with my conscious thought. I don’t build them. I don’t even know they exist until they ambush me.
One of my favorite characters came from a photograph. An old photo, curled edges, dated in blue pen on the reverse. The color was washed away, time making shadows sepia. The photo was of my father, smiling, rifle in hand. A barbed wire fence ran behind, slanting away into sage and sand. I kept seeing a man there, not my father, not a relation but an old rancher, one hand holding the fence taut. How do you see someone that isn’t in the photo? Good question. I’m not sure I can answer that but I’ll give it a try.
A good character shows up like a surprise visit from distant relatives. It’s not easy at first, you have to share everything with that character. They follow you into the bathroom, stand behind you in the shower and frequently take up most of the couch. They talk too. All the time. They tell you their story, every piece of minutia, every nuance and annoyance. When you try to ask questions, they ignore you; when you try to argue, they pout or hide or worse still, they leave. It sounds like a process that could be cured with some medication or a drive through at the local psych office. But it isn’t so simple. Writers live that way, listening, recording, remembering. When characters show up, we know we have something and when they leave, we beg for them to come back.
Lowe, my old rancher, had a story to tell me about his brother, newly returned from Vietnam. Lowe’s brother sends for his daughter, a half Vietnamese girl who is now consigned to life in rural Montana in the early 70s. It wasn’t a happy story but Lowe needed to tell it and I needed to write it for him. So why did Lowe show up in the photo? I suppose we could say it was something subconscious, a memory or a dream. I also suppose we could step into the metaphysical and say it has something to do with channeling or ESP. I don’t know. I don’t know and that is fine with me. I like finding characters waiting for me in grocery stores or in coffee shops. I like listening to their stories and more importantly, I like writing these stories down. Don’t get me wrong, I argue frequently with my characters. I tell them what to do, kick them around, I’ve even tried to kill a few off but they don’t pay much attention to me. The story happens and I get to be there. Maybe in some way I do build my characters. Maybe I build them in that quiet spot in my mind, that spot that comes alive when I am driving or reading or listening to good music. Maybe they come to me pre-assembled, fresh out of some unknown package, read for their close up. I’m not sure and really, I am happy because of it. I like the surprise. I like the chance at a surprise encounter with a trucker addicted to pinball or a teenage prostitute who has discovered she is a faith healer. After all, the surprise is what keeps the reader, reading and the writer, writing. So if you see someone in a photograph that you know isn’t there, it’s probably because you’re a writer. If they tell you their story, listen. If they tell you to burn down the orphanage---well, I recommend skipping that part and going for an amber pill bottle with an expensive label.