How do novelists create characters?

Here’s how I do it, or rather how I’ve done it, in varying ways, with each of my five novels.

Bodies in Motion

For my first novel, Bodies in Motion, I patterned Sonya, the photographer and mother of small kids, on myself. For her husband, Victor, I drew on my own husband. That is, I drew on Norman’s actions and attitude, but not his voice. Victor’s manner of speaking came from old letters I’d saved. (I’m a big saver, still holding the get well notes my fourth grade classmates were obliged to send me when I was briefly out sick.) Letters from people with distinctive styles of speech can get you going in a voice not your own.

Bodies in Motion is newly available as an eBook on Amazon.

A Certain Man

My second novel, A Certain Man, told the story of my father’s life. Here my major source was my own memory. But I also read through 1500 pages of his sermons and all his self-instructing Yankee diaries carefully kept from 1913 until his death in 1963. Writing about a real person certainly gives you a start on character. But all too easily, it can lead you out of drama into chronicle. And it poses questions about your subject’s privacy. I could not have written this book when my father was alive. It would serve me as a eulogy after he was gone.

White Rising

This novel took me out of the personal and into the past. “Never write about an historical character from his point of view,” the novelist Hugh Nissenson warned me. But that was the point! I wanted to be inside the mind of Metacom, the Wampanoag leader whom the 17th Century English colonists in what is now Massachusetts called King Philip. So I read the records of the Plymouth Colony and the books and pamphlets of English colonists and adventurers “inside out.” that is, I tried to imagine each scene of contact from the Wampanoag point of view, specifically from inside Metacom, an ambivalent man. He wanted war and he wanted peace. So I took a strand of myself, my own experiences of ambivalence, and hung it on Metacom. In the English section of the book, I did something simpler and more external. I gave the young woman, Witty Strong, a husband with all the flaws of an old boyfriend of mine. What if I’d married him?

Try to Remember

For Try to Remember I drew upon my early freelance work as a ghost writer for psychiatrists, as well as on the experiences of various friends. And, once again, I called up something in myself, my life as a second child. I’d researched and written about the effect of birth order on personality for New York Magazine and when my research on false claims of sexual abuse revealed that the young women making the claims during the Great Wave (1988-1992) were most often firstborns, I had a way into both Phoebe and Bess. And I’ve known several well-intentioned but misguided therapists. Throw all that in a pot, stir well.

The Inner Sea

Trajan, head of the Roman empire in the year 100, was also the first non-Roman emperor, being born in Spain. This made him an outsider of sorts. And he was (initially, at least) a good ruler, eschewing the violent acts of several emperors before him. He was presented in writings of the time as honest, fair, and moderate, his only flaw being that of too much wine. I saw him as “a thoroughly modern man.” The five other characters come, once again, from strands of myself. As a teenager I was, like Lucia, all zeal. Like many young people, including James, I wanted to see beyond my parents’ world. In mid-life, I began to seek moderation, as does Zenion. As an older woman I have Claudia’s wish for a flourishing family. And like Mattias and most parents I worry and grieve when my children are threatened.


Meet the Characters of The Inner Sea

Meet ZENION, a freed slave under the spell of his old owner:

Walking back to the city, Zenion felt that the thing he so much desired might be coming into reach: that Claudia might call him back into her family. Not as a slave, nor as a freedman forever obliged to run a former mistress’s errands, but as one born free, a man of whom she might ask something impossible and he might hand it to her on a silver tray with patterning at the edges as fine as can be done without fracture.

Meet CLAUDIA as she prepares for a visit from her granddaughter:

On the fourth day of the week, when all actions come under the influence of the planet Mercury, Claudia refused to let her maid re-braid her hair. A single hair might break and with Mercury in play, any such small accident could affect the future or simply portend bad news, and Claudia wanted good news.

Meet LUCIA, as she writes a letter to her grandmother

Lucia Synestra to Claudia Amandilla, greetings. How my thoughts run to you, Grandmother, the one person in all our family who understands my heart. That’s why I am telling you my secret before I tell my parents. You will not be angry. Or ashamed. You’ll hear me out. First, let me report that my mother has recovered from ordering the wrong mosaic for the dining room floor and she has done so with the help of Eros, by falling in love withher new hairdresser. She attends no more to the mysteries of Isis, finding man quite sufficient to her immortality.

Meet JAMES, a young man setting sail for Ephesus:

Looking round, he saw that a handful of older Jews were clustered near the stern and an assortment of clean-shaven Gentiles by the bow. When one of the Jews motioned him closer, he nodded in a gesture of solidarity but remained apart. Suddenly the deck tilted beneath him and he grabbed at the siding to keep his feet. Up came the anchors and out plumped the sails. The Jews motioned him nearer for the prayer to be said upon departure, but he shook his head and sank down where he was—halfway between the Jews and the unknown Gentiles.

Meet MATTIAS, yearning for the Sabbath:

Lowering the counter’s shutters, Mattias saw that the sun would soon reach a point above the horizon equal to its own width and so the Seventh Day would begin. How he longed to rest his feet in the synagogue, to allow his thoughts to open to the mystery of being in the world. To feel what birds feel in the air above the ruckus. It was almost here, the soft relief that came to him every week on stepping into the circuit of the Seventh Day with its blessed stoppage of work, its chance to forget the melting point of silver, the smell of solder, the urgency of customers with dented candlesticks, and, lately, the gloominess of his son.

Meet TRAJAN, the Roman emperor, at his morning appointments:

His freedman from the treasury arrived to inform him yet again that gold was short and getting shorter. He’d pushed the inheritance tax off for two generations, to benefit the rich, and was giving a monthly gift of 650 denarri to two hundred thousand citizens of the city’s poor, as well as returning estates that had been improperly seized by his predecessors. All that drained off money. Tomorrow, he said to his treasurer, bring me a way to reap gold without war or taxes or the murder of wealthy men. They both laughed and he waved the man off.

From The Inner Sea: A Novel of the Year 100, Levellers Press, 2014.