where the writers are
Searching for Characters


      When Dickens knew he needed a character and couldn't find one in his imagination, he would walk the streets of London looking at faces. All those 19th century pedestrians, shopkeepers, hawkers, and hansom drivers were auditioning for a role in one of Dickens' novels without knowing it.    

I’ve tried this and it doesn’t work for me. I usually start a story because a title intrigues me. And the characters are often the last to show up.  They are like rescuers, bailing me out because they can do things  that I can't do without seeming like amateur puppeteers always showing the strings.

            I'm eternally grateful to my characters.  They’re like out-of-work actors who have gotten a part and become wildly enthusiastic. They show up for work whether or not I feel like working.  And once they get the part, they are willing to appear, disappear, die, fall in love, cross-dress, get tattoos, even kill. 

            Some of my characters are people I’ve never met. Others  I eventually recognize as collages of people I’ve known combined with my imagination and their role in the story.

            But whether or not I can identify the composites, I somehow imagine all characters--past, present and future--living in a special country, a country always ready to appear in the right narrative.

            But that's only my story about characters. And it’s obvious--from hearing about Dickens--that there are are so many other stories?

             What's your story?

             Do you start a with a character?

             Do you have to look for them?

             Do they appear out of thin air?





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Filling the role

Who knows where characters come from, whether they are ancestors or just spirits roaming the ether, angels and demons, or composites of people we've known and who have impressed us in some way. Or perhaps even precognition of people we shall know at a point in the future. The phenomenon of life mimicking art is powerful and really deserves deep investigation.

As a young writer, my characters were composites, but if I got stuck, I'd visualise some well-known actor in the role to make the plot work convincingly.

With more mature experience, the characters just emerge - around the same time as the theme. But as I'm now mainly focused on real people, it behoves me to study them in depth.

I can identify to a large degree with my protagonist, Mary Cole, and that is partly what makes her story so interesting. Nowadays, my characters don't take over and run riot. They gently ask me to tell their story in the truest way possible. It's their agenda.

But it's always debatable who's in control of whom!