This was a special weekend for me. One of my very closest friends from college — my former roommate and music partner, actually — came to visit. We talked and played guitar and laughed all weekend, and had a truly wonderful time. We’ve seen each other many times since college — at least once a year, on average — and every time we get together it feels like no time has passed at all. At least it does on one level, in terms of our rapport. On another level, it’s absolutely clear that we’re older, that our lives have changed, that the issues with which we’re dealing now are utterly unlike those we dealt with when we were dumb college kids playing music and listening to records (yes, records) and chasing girls.
As with everything else that I do, this time with my friend got me thinking about writing, about storytelling, about character. One piece of advice that I give again and again on this site is to use background work on characters as a source for short fiction. In taking an episode form an earlier part of a character’s life and turning it into a short story, you accomplish several things at once. 1) You get to know your character better. You learn something about him or her that you might not have figured out any other way. 2) You acclimate yourself to that character’s narrative voice. Yes, it might be a younger voice than the one that will be in your story, but it’s still that person’s POV, and using it in a short piece before you take on the novel can only strengthen that voice for the larger project. And 3) You give yourself a piece of fiction that you might be able to sell, thus improving your chances of finding an agent, finding an editor, and selling the larger work.
I thought of this today while driving my friend to the airport, because I realized that if I was a character in a book, and someone was reading the conversation that carried us from my home to the Nashville Airport (a 80 mile drive), that reader would have learned a tremendous amount about me. They wouldn’t have needed to read any other scenes to figure out that I was a Dad and a husband; that I was a professional writer just emerging from a difficult patch in my career; that I was a musician and a photographer; that I’d gone to Brown University and had a great deal of fun in college; that I’d lost both my parents in my early thirties; that I had three older siblings who had been through a good deal in their lives, too. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. More important, those reading this conversation would have gotten some idea of what each of these facts means to me, how, taken together, they have shaped my life and made me who I am today.
I knew from an early age that I was destined to write fiction, because I constantly found myself writing in my head things I’d just experienced or was still experiencing at that very moment. It turns out the distance between writing my own life in my head, and writing the lives of characters I’ve created really wasn’t that far. And I guess that’s kind of the point. When you’re developing characters, you can do all sorts of background work and try to catalog their life experiences. I do that. I like to have a data sheet of sorts of all my major characters. Where were they born? What was their family life like growing up? What were the formative events of their lives? Etc. But knowing those things doesn’t tell you as much about the character as writing the events themselves, or even writing a dialogue about them between your character and his best friend from college.
Any writer or editor will tell you that you need to show your readers rather than merely telling them. You need to allow them to experience the fear or the anger or the passion your character feels. Describing it for them just isn’t enough. That’s true of this kind of background work, too. You as a writer have to live your character’s past. You can’t just make it up and jot it down. You have to dive into it, submerge yourself in it. You have to write it. Because in writing it, you experience it. You see it and hear it; you feel it and smell it and taste it. And in doing that you make your character come alive; you make him or her become something far more tangible than a name and a list of attributes.
Your characters have childhood friends. Maybe they have siblings they haven’t seen in years. Arrange a reunion today. Write about it. Experience it with them. Your characters and the stories they’re in will be better for it.
David B. Coe