Cara Sue Achterberg: Where do Characters come from?

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As a pantser (a writer who does not outline, rather follows a story wherever it leads), I meet many of my characters when they appear on the page.


I do know the main characters before I start, having spent perhaps months getting to know them before their adventures begin. I interview them and write dozens of pages filled with their answers, my observations, sudden inspirations (he’s obsessed with peanut butter, she always speaks with full words instead of contractions).


I imagine them while running, driving, cleaning, even having conversations with strangers. Sometimes I forget what I’m doing and wind up arriving at the school or ball field having driven there on autopilot instead of the store or appointment I set off to visit.


And then I begin a story with those characters by my side, ready to lead me in.


But the other characters – many times the ones who carry the story and make it interesting, those characters surprise me when they turn up on the page.


At a recent bookclub gathering I attended, one of the members said, “Oh that Leroy – I hated him. He was scary!”


I said, “Me, too! Whenever he turned up in a scene I got really nervous.”


They all looked at me in surprise as I explained I had no idea who he was until he walked onto the page.


“But where did he come from?”


Good question.


I thought about it and told them I thought he was a blend of a couple awful men I met at a trailer park where I went to pick up an underprivileged teen I was mentoring when I was a young adult. Each week when I arrived in my little pickup truck with the vinyl seats, no air conditioning, and a radio propped up on the dashboard, to whisk my charge off to the library to study or my apartment to cook a meal, I had nervous conversations with them as they smoked their cigarettes and regarded me suspiciously.


Returning my charge there in the dark, I was always anxious when the trailer door opened and her step-father grumbled that we were late. He scared me, but she had to live with him. I wondered and worried about her for years.


Twenty years later that man who frightened me so, still frightens me, but I controlled him on my page.


Another character who turned up as I wrote I’m Not Her was Trevor, a precocious first grader. Carin opened Leann’s door, and there he was! I was as surprised as she, and quickly fell in love with him, too.


Trevor is the innocent kid I see being dragged along crying into the Wal-Mart or playing with the boxes on the shelves at the grocery store until his mom smacks his hand away. He is all the children who catch my attention when they wiggle in church, fuss standing in line at the post office, annoy their overwrought parents by their sheer curiosity and energy. “Kids are resilient,” I was told when I mentioned my concern for kids I witnessed in my work volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. They bring sunshine into dark lives on a daily basis. Reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, I was captivated by the character Holden Caulfield, but not because he was such a cynical oddball bucking the system, but because he revered children and wanted to protect them from the world he viewed as unworthy of them. That’s where Trevor came from. He is the kid I wanted to rescue.


I would guess that for most writers, characters come from their own experiences. My son, also a writer, has a t-shirt that says,


“Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.”


I would contend that there is an inherent danger in befriending a writer for this very fact. We can’t help but write from what we know. It’s not deliberate. None of us set out to write a character based on someone we know- at least I don’t. But when a mind is freed to wander, you just never know who might turn up.

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On April 29, 2016

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