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Knowing Your Characters

Knowing Your Characters

A Session with Mary Marcus

I don’t think you can know too much about any character you are going to put in a book or a short story. However, that doesn’t mean you have to put it all on the page. Sometimes what you don’t say is as telling as what you do say.

For main characters, I always sit down and play around with names for a while. I’ve never written anything, including short stories, where the names didn’t change several times. And while we are on the subject of names, when you chose one, make sure it’s a name that suits not just the character, but the setting and the time in which your story/novel is going to be told. The great screenplay writer and dramatist, Paddy Chayefsky went to the New York phone book for inspiration. Since we don’t have phone books around anymore, if I’m stuck on a name, I go to Google and pick out the most popular names for boy and girl babies for the year in which my tale is set. I run down the list (and the list is really long) and voila, the perfect name always appears as if by magic. Have a little patience! Your perfect name may be the last name on the list. You’ll know; when you have nailed the name, it just sings to you.

The New Me by Mary MarcusIn my novel The New Me, my main character and first person narrator, Harriet, is from the Deep South. She has a very old fashioned name as befits someone from her area of the country born during a time in which people weren’t naming their children for celebrities as much as they are today. Harriet is also, in spite of her feminist sensibilities, an old fashioned sort of wife and mother, the kind who puts dinner on the table every night, even though she has a busy career. Harriet was named for her grandfather, Harry. I never put that in the book, but I always knew it.  Since Harriet is a Food Network host specializing in healthy food, I was happy . Healthy went well with Harriet Thus, Healthy Harriet  became the name of her show.

Harriet’s heel of a husband, Jules, is another example of a name that took a while to get to. He was, in other drafts, Peter, Bobby, and a few other names I don’t recall. Jules is also a homonym for “jewels,” and in fact Jules is a trust-fund baby. One of the problems in Harriet and Jules’ marriage is his incredible sense of entitlement. Jules last name is Prince. And what a prince he is!

The person who does this best, is of course, Dickens. All his wonderful characters have names that suit them and describe who they are as people. Of course, I think Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is a perfect name for someone who unearths secrets.

I think once you nail the name, it will bring with it a lot of information.

The second thing I do with characters, before I sit down to write (and sometimes if I am blocked) is to open up a file and start free-associating. This is an old technique I picked up from Self Analysis, a book written by the great analyst and student of Freud, Karen Horney. You can do it with yourself, or you can do it with a character. You can’t know too much about your character. Beyond the physical description, you should know what kind of food he/she eats; what she/he is afraid of. Does he/she get along with his siblings? Mother? Popular in high school—maybe the captain of the football team, or a girl who is captain of the varsity soccer team. You must absolutely know if your character was a nerd, a misfit, a juvenile delinquent, or occasionally, just for the heck of it, rips off a lipstick or a pack of batteries at the drugstore. Maybe you use only one sentence that tells you the whole thing. If your character is an insomniac for instance, a lot of what happens can take place when the world is supposedly sleeping. This is ideal for a character in a mystery.  Or someone who looks out of windows.

In The New Me, I wasn’t interested in going into my main character’s  childhood (although I knew all about it). I wanted her entire arc to be in the present. But Harriet does tell the reader a few things about her past.

How her mother’s housekeeper, Noog, “taught me how to cook. She also taught me that someone could love me. I was her pet, her baby girl.” This also explains why Harriet’s best friend is her assistant Valentina, who is also her housekeeper.

For me, it was important to allude to why Harriet stayed with her impossible husband as long as she did. Why hadn’t she left him years ago? And this answer was in her childhood. She married very young and didn’t know any better. She came from a loveless home and her Mother’s housekeeper was as close as she got to love.

“Practically the first thing I learned about myself was that I wasn’t wanted. I was a mistake.”

Later on, after Harriet’s twin sons leave for college, and she has real “free time” she starts noticing her feelings more. When Jules comes home for dinner, e